Offer dignity with simple, genuine interest

In previous columns, I shared my admiration for Bob Dylan and my expectation that someday there will exist a Bob Dylan hymnal. There are already Bob Dylan songbooks, but a hymnal is different from a songbook. Hymns are not just songs, but songs with spiritual content.

Dylan hates being typecast, so I won’t call him a theologian. Nevertheless, many of Dylan’s works offer what I call spiritual vistas. That is, Dylan’s compositions often point beyond the everyday to bigger issues, whether that is the pain of life (“Everything is Broken,”) the quest for justice (Hurricane and The Ballad of Hattie Carroll,) and the need for mercy (What Good Am I?).

Readers who like Dylan — and I know not everyone does — can probably name Dylan compositions that speak deeply to them and maybe even changed their lives. If you want to silence Dylan fans, however, ask them to name the best Dylan composition. If they can say anything at all, they might say, “Where would I begin?” or “How can I choose?”

A Dylan ballad that qualifies as one of my favorites is “Dignity,” a hymn that centers on something rare in this world and yet something that every person craves.

Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears

In a crowded room full of covered up mirrors

Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years

For dignity . . .

Wise man lookin’ in a blade of grass

Young man lookin’ in the shadows that pass

Poor man lookin’ through painted glass

For dignity . . .

So many roads, so much at stake

Too many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake

Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take

To find dignity

To call “Dignity” a hymn is to say its purpose is more than entertainment. A hymn offers a lesson and is often a call to action, and “Dignity” invites listeners to do more than hum along.

For those of us who work with children and young people, don’t we daily meet those who need to hear, “I see something special in you” or “I believe you can do this” or “Tell me more about that. I’m interested in your thoughts.”? Young people hunger for those comments, as long as they are offered sincerely.

Of course, many adults are starving for someone to say those same things to them. In prisons, Native American reservations, homeless shelters, and refugee camps, there is nothing more valuable, and unfortunately rarer, than dignity.

Yet, I’m guessing that Dylan hoped listeners would do more than hear “Dignity” and lament the lack of it in our world. If we think about dignity for more than a few moments, we might recognize that every one of us is given opportunities every day to offer to those we meet this life-giving quality. Dignity is as necessary to the human soul as air is to the body, and, like air, dignity cannot be bought. Dignity can only be given.

How would our communities be changed if everyone who reads this column were to believe this: God will bring people into our lives today who need a word of dignity from us.

Let’s believe that.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].