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If I walked up to you and asked you, “What does ‘dignity’ mean to you?” What would you say? Much of Western culture would often equate it with the clothes you wear or the type of work you do. If you’re caught naked or get your ass kicked, you have lost some dignity. Many people in Middle-Eastern cultures would argue a harsher interpretation of the same. Most Rangers I served with would tell me to shut up and get back to whatever it was that I was doing.
But I wasn’t in the West, I was in the jungles of Burma. Four of us were sitting with our boots off on Saw Rai’s bamboo floor. I spent the morning filming outpatient medics completing their rounds, checking eyes for splinters, compiling lists of symptoms, and determining whether or not their patients were sick enough to admit into the hospital. I had stepped in on a class about appendicitis and took some footage of Saw Rai translating for the doctor. The evening was spent building a small building for the generator and safely storing expensive medical equipment, a project that would take several weeks. It was a full day, and I was happy to relax for a few moments.
Saw Rai, the doctor and I sipped warm beer under the single light that hung in his main room. The beer was stale and foamy, but it seemed flavorful and more refreshing than any beer in recent memory. We were talking about dignity, and how if you were caught somewhere with your pants down (literally), your dignity was shot. But Saw Rai wasn’t quite understanding. He described dignity the way most Karen people would.
“Dignity is how much you can give to other people.”
In short, dignity is your capacity to give to others. This wasn’t an enforced, socialist philosophy that they submit to, rather it’s a culture of honest giving that honors those who give up something for the benefit of others. And I remembered, I couldn’t walk to a nearby village without having a dozen people offer me their homes for the night. For the majority of the month I was staying at Saw Rai’s house, and had that not been possible, he would have been disappointed. Not because of my refusal, but because of his genuine desire to give to someone who is here to give to his community. It seemed like everyone felt that way, and unless they were an enemy (I would not confuse this with weakness), everyone was made to feel welcome.
For a few nights afterward, I would wonder how they came across such an oddly specific definition for a virtue like that, but the answer was painfully obvious. It was coming from a people who, by all Western definitions, has had their dignity stripped from them over and over again. They have been ruthlessly beaten, starved and raped for seventy years. But they realized that dignity isn’t something that can be taken from you. The only person who can take it away is you. Once you stop giving, helping, serving–that’s when your dignity dies.
And I understood. I realized that Saw Rai was just articulating something I already knew. As a Ranger, and I’m guessing many places in the military, this was one of the unspoken bedrock virtues.
What can I give to those around me?
You can get completely hammered, run naked through the barracks hallways, and still retain your dignity if you give your subordinates the means to complete the mission and survive on target. You can put on a plaid shirt, wear a high and tight and shave every day, but if you don’t step up when the bullets start to fly, your dignity is going to die alongside your buddies.
But to Saw Rai, it was just another virtue ingrained into the fabric of his society. We all spoke late into the night. Someone else would later tell us that he had walked two hours just to get those beers for us.
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