Prisoners of war die more frequently from the loss of dignity than from starvation. And, sometimes, the only way to maintain dignity is to rebel. Maybe, sometimes, when our children fight back, they are really just fighting for their dignity…
On Friday afternoons in May, my daughter naps in her bedroom, and her chatter sleeps with her. As the tipping sun dumps its slanting light through open windows, the dust motes dance in the breeze and the silence.
On Friday afternoons in May, my second-grade son is still in school, moving faster than I would like to admit from being his daddy’s boy to being his own man.
On Friday afternoons in May, my four-year-old son, Quinn, settles in to the endangered sanctuary of a middle child—no one is drowning him out, and the quiet opens him up. In preparation for his “rest time,” we read the books of his choosing. He gets to be in charge—telling his daddy which pages to skip and which pages to repeat.
But then he asks for another book. And then another. And then another! (You get the point, right?)
As the requests roll in, I heave a big-weary sigh.
And if I look closely, I can see the confusion and sadness sweep past his eyes. But I have to look fast, because the sadness is quickly replaced by rebellion.
He kicks a book to the floor, stomps to his room, slams the door. I hear a lock click.
I think to myself, “What just happened?”
And on a Friday afternoon in May, I receive the answer: with one heavy exhalation, I made my son feel like a prisoner of war.
Lauren Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken” is the true story of Louie Zamperini, a world-class Olympic distance runner who enlisted in World War II. He was shot down at sea and set a tragic world record: he survived on a raft at sea for 47 days. He drifted 2,000 miles into enemy Japanese territory, where he was captured and held as a prisoner of war for more than two years.
It’s a story of resilience.
As a POW, Zamperini and his fellow captives were constantly on the brink of starvation, sometimes surviving for days on a cup of seaweed or a ball of rice. They walked on legs like sticks. They would eat almost anything. They tried to eat leather, but they couldn’t get it down.
But even as their bodies consumed themselves, starvation was not the most lethal threat to survival.
Prisoners died more frequently from the loss of their dignity.
The prisoners who allowed themselves to be stripped of their dignity curled up and died, regardless of their calorie intake.
The dictionary defines dignity as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” When we strip someone of their dignity, we are robbing them of their sense of honor and respect. And when we steal their honor and self-respect, when we convince them the world doesn’t need them and make them feel more like a burden than a human, we are plunging them into the deepest shame.
And shame kills. Literally.
Most of us will never know the inside of a prison camp, but our dignity can still be stripped from us in violent and cruel ways: parents beat children and shout obscenities into them, and men assault women, and on the playground kids gang-up and reject the lonely kid with glasses and a limp. And our dignity can also be stolen from us in the quiet and subtle corners of life: when we take a customer’s order and they never look us in the eye, or when we are cut off in traffic and treated as if we didn’t exist, or when our loved one’s listen to our stories with only a fraction of their attention.
Or when our parents sigh a quiet-but-oh-so-loud sigh that screams, “You are a burden to me.”
Threatened with the loss of dignity, how can we resist the shame? Louie Zamperini and his fellow captives found one particularly effective way to retain their dignity:
They rebelled subtly, by stowing pictures of loved ones beneath floorboards. And they rebelled courageously by sabotaging the construction of engines and weapons parts. In their rebellion, the prisoners maintained a sense of purpose. They steadfastly insisted the world still needed them. And, in doing so, they maintained their dignity.
Maybe, sometimes, when our children rebel, they are fighting for their dignity. Maybe when we sigh and undermine their place of honor and importance in the family, they stomp into bedrooms because they are resiliently refusing the shame.
Maybe there are some kinds of rebellion we should encourage.
Several weeks ago, Caitlin was playing with her newfound language and reciting words she knows her parents can’t stand, like “dummy” and “stupid.” My fuse was short, and I raised my voice, telling her to stop. I suppose I was hoping to bully her into submission. And from opposite sides of the room, my boys jumped up and raced to their sister’s side, and Aidan exclaimed, “You can’t talk to our sister that way.”
My boys rebelled. And I smiled.
I love that kind of rebellion.
In the process of preserving their sister’s dignity, they were also asserting their own. They were showing me they have gotten the message loud and clear: as big brothers, you have a role to play in this family—your sister needs your protection and we need you to stand up for her. My boys seem to be realizing they have a respected place of honor in the world, as protectors and defenders.
Their rebellion was the sweet uprising of kids who know they are needed.
As parents, I think we get caught up in believing our job is to protect our children from all pain, or to guarantee their financial future, or to make sure they have the best of things. But maybe the most important thing we can do for our children is to preserve their dignity, by instilling in them the belief that they are needed.
Our children need to know they have an indispensable role to play in our families.
But even more importantly, they need to know a broken world needs them. This fragmented globe needs a generation of children who understand their roles
and dangerous, rebellious dispensers of a redeeming love.
I think its time to quit protecting our kids from pain and hardship. Instead, we need to invest our energies into convincing our children they have a role to play in our families, and that they live in a world that needs them.
If our children have this kind of dignity bestowed upon them, they will be able to endure any kind of hardship and pain, with rebellions big and small, rebellions with purpose and meaning, rebellions that heal and restore a world in desperate need of redemption.
Share Your Comment! Have you ever been given a role in the world and experienced the dignity of it? Please feel free to share in the comments below!
About the Blog: So, as it turns out, I can’t write shorter blog posts! I seem to be incapable of it. I will continue to post whenever I finish one, but I suspect the majority will still come on Friday evenings. I hope you enjoy your Saturday morning coffee with a good read! And, by the way, if you are a sigh-er, rest easy. You don’t sigh because you’re a bad parent. You sigh because you are living in the constant tension of having to meet everyone else’s needs, while still trying to take care of yourself. Next week (probably Friday night!), I will post again about living wisely in the tension. As always, thanks for the gift of your readership!
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