Dignity | A Les Miserables Reflection

I type this sitting on a porch overlooking the city streets of Barcelona as the sun comes up. An intentional way to start 2013 after the chaos of 2012: with adventure, travel, friendship and food. Last night I went and saw Les Miserables, and it brought to life some thoughts I’ve been having as I watched Fantine, and others, struggle with re-gaining their dignity. And it posed the question: Is one’s dignity further empowered by the grace received from others?

As a child I was told I was worthy. I was loved. I was believed in. Dignity was engrained into my being. Dignity for self and for others. And yet in my first marriage, I found myself in a web of unhealth. It didn’t take much for me to realize what was happening – I was quick to respond to the truth of the situation provided by mentors in my life – but what if I hadn’t had that core of truth? What happens to one’s dignity then? My story is peanuts compared to Fantine’s or many of the women I meet through my work or travels. But in it’s own small way it’s allowed me to explore what dignity is, where it comes from, and what it means to have your spirit broken and then re-built.

“Interesting”, as one mentor would say, “that you live a life empowering others to be free from bondage and yet you put yourself in the very situation you are asking that they not enter”.

Take Thailand – a country who’s people have taught me the beauty of sacrifice for sake of family – I wonder where the two get mixed up. Dignity for self vs. service for others. Because when life runs out of options and you’re forced into the deepest and darkest of despairs, your good intentions don’t seem to mean much. The scene from Les Miserables when Fantine finds herself poked and prodded, without hair and teeth, realizing that her only viable option to support her daughter is prostitution, keeps playing in my head.

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame

The ability for a woman to let go of self in service to others is profound. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Young women who move to Bangkok’s red light districts to sell their bodies and send money home to their parents. Older women who take clients at all hours while their children sleep in the next room. This is their sacrifice, their desperation.

I remember a conversation I had years ago with a woman in a brothel in Mumbai. I asked her how she ended up where she was and her response marked my journey: “I am not like you. I cannot leave here. I have no other options.”

Her soul had been broken. Her dignity stripped. She had succumbed to her situation.

Can it ever be too late for grace to restore dignity?

The soul of a person is so easily broken. And not so easily restored.

God’s grace for us is without bound. And as the church, we have that same gift. To give grace as freely as we receive it.

We live in a world today seeped with non-profits and people trying to change the world. And it’s so easy to get caught up in the statistics and lose the heart. While statistics are necessary, without empowering the dignity in those we serve – without empowering their dreams – our work is in vain.

Val Jean gave grace to Fantine, and in doing so re-gained life for what life is meant to be rich with – love. And Fantine was able to let go, and die in peace, knowing her precious daughter was in good hands.

If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!

I believe that dignity for self is found within – it cannot be determined, taken away, or given completely by someone else – but the magic and beauty of grace being that there are points where we are so low that we’ve lost sight of our own self, and that grace can begin to remind and restore that which we know is true. That each of us is worthy, precious, and human.