I enjoy watching “Valley of the Dolls,” a movie based on the novel by Jaqueline Susann. The flick, in my estimation, is a bit campy, but I find the storyline and B-grade acting captivating. One scene in particular in which Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) and Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) get into a tussle in a ladies restroom room has stayed with me. After yanking off Helen’s wig, Neely tries to flush it down a commode. Helen is understandably enraged. Her now-visible chopped gray hair is most unbecoming. The attendant informs her that she can sneak out a back door, but Helen will have none of that. She looks into the mirror, pulls her wrap around her shoulders, and declares, “I’ll go out the same way I came in.”
Helen is not an admirable character. She has a high opinion — perhaps rightly — of her talents. She is self-confident and self-assured but also arrogant and demanding, often treating others condescendingly. Helen, though, operates under no illusions. She has a hard-nosed understanding about the demands of the theater and understands that glory and fame are fleeting. Still, she’s not devoid of empathy. She sees Neely for what she is: a talented, up-and-coming performer, albeit one who lacks the steely, inner toughness necessary to make it big. Nonetheless, she sees Neely as a threat to her stardom. In the avian universe, Helen is an osprey not about to let a titmouse like Neely upstage and shame her. Shorn of her wig, Helen is, nevertheless, not stripped of her dignity. She holds her head up confidently as she strides out to her waiting fans.
The root of dignity is dignitas, the Latin word meaning one’s worthiness in the context of their esteem and bearing and of their reputational prestige and merit. Dignity is generally considered an admirable trait. But maintaining one’s dignity is oftentimes not an easy thing to do. It can require, as the Brits are fond to say, keeping a stiff upper lip. But behind that stiff lip, a sea of fears, anxieties and frustrations could be roiling.
The great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is purported to have said, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my suffering.”
In Dostoyevsky parlance that means the manner in which one bears their suffering is a matter of personal dignity. Thus, when confronted with a challenging situation or times, we each face a choice. One response is to bemoan your plight by projecting a self-pitying, I’m-a-victim demeanor. Another is to hold your head up and carry on in a dignified way.
In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl, writing in reference to the inordinate suffering and dehumanization prisoners in the concentration camps endured, said that to survive, the prisoners, even though they were shorn of nearly every element of personal dignity, still had to choose. He averred that they needed to stop trying to figure out the meaning of life — thus the reason for their suffering — and instead to think of themselves as being challenged by life every minute of every day. He asserted it was not through talk or meditation — and presumably prayer — that they would find answers but in right action and conduct.
Frankl’s prescription echoes two directives in Buddhism’s Eightfold Path — Right Speech and Right Action — and has meaning for everyone. For me that means how one responds to crises is the true measure of a person. A person with nobility doesn’t whine but instead faces them with class: with dignitas.
Each of us is an algorithm of our life experiences combined with our natural talents, skills, traits, and choices made, healthy as well as poor ones. That complex matrix is the sum of our individual humanness.
Frankl cited a line from an unnamed poet who wrote, “What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.” Anyone who has endured a difficult situation that could have dragged them to the bottom but didn’t, because they conducted themselves resolutely with personal courage, gets that. They know how it feels to emerge from an ordeal all the stronger in character.
The most we can ask for is to depart from this plane with dignity and be remembered as having lived as decorous life as possible by having done our best despite our voluminous warts, flaws, and other unseemly aspects. For in the end, that’s the meaning of life.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.