One of the reasons I enjoy watching David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes is the dignity of the animals and flora. The Great White Shark, the Sloth, Plankton, Monster Jellyfish exhibit a style that, even when predatory, is dignified in a way humans seem to have lost. Wildlife never appears to be cheap, sordid or trivial. It is at all times dignified. What has the human species gained and lost in its search for longevity, luxury and leisure?
Of all the advances humanity has made I rate humour as near the top of the list. Other primates exhibit what can appear to be humour, too, but their language skills are less than ours and humour significantly requires verbal exchange and definition. Sensitivity, on which humour also depends, is found in other species and probably in many where we cannot detect it. Who knows the sensitivity of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef? What might be the sensitivity of a stone? Lack of animation may not predicate lack of feeling.
Humans construct dignity all the time. Great buildings, parks, art, music, literature are all manifestations of human dignity. A successful life, a generous spirit, beauty that comes from within, style that enhances the amazing attributes we can already have are ways in which humans match and sometimes excel what is found in nature. We are capable of dignity.
We are also capable of, and increasingly exhibit, an undignified side. Some would say that it is part of our nature. I dispute that. In the process of making life longer and, as we currently define it, “more fun” we add vulgarity, intrusion and disrespect not only for others but for ourselves. Human bodies and minds are capable of creating stunning beauty but also of degenerating to unbelievable tawdriness. When we do, we lose our dignity.
Dignity comes from personal standards and behaviours without which it cannot be acquired. We observe it as stature, a presence that is commanding by its modesty, a power that needs no noise to proclaim it. I have seen it twice in public figures in what I believe to be exceptional measure. Once was when Prima Ballerina Tamara Karsavina came to dinner with a small group of us in 1960. Ballerinas don’t usually make speeches so I asked Madam Karsavina what she would do to “sing for her supper”. She taught us how to walk into a room. It was the first lesson I had in stature. It was a memorable experience.
I saw it in practice again when Bobby Kennedy came to a reception I was attending. He might have been taught by Madam Karsavina. His bearing, simplicity and friendliness were of a high standard. He demonstrated great stature to the point where those who saw him felt comforted in the presence of such confidence. Where are today’s leaders with great stature? Pope Francis, President Poroshenko, Sir David Attenborough…and then I am stumped. There must be many more but I don’t see them.
It behoves us to restore the dignity of the human species. We do not do this by being sombre and dull but by being witty, amusing and, above all, polite.
We should, after all, be able to at least equal the Monster Jellyfish, don’t you think?