Seeing beauty in others can help them see the beauty in themselves.
When Pope Francis publically embraced the man who suffered severe disfigurement in November last year he did a wonderful thing. He restored the man’s dignity as a human being and showed the world that we have nothing to fear from those who are different. More than just symbolic, this action has since given the man in question, Vinicio Riva, a new hope in life and has retrieved his sense of self-worth. It has validated who he is in his very being. Vinicio told his aunt that after his hug from the pontiff, ‘Here, I leave my pain.’
To be a human being who is stripped of dignity is to carry the emotional pain of being invisible, unworthy. In the deep truth of this transformative gesture, Pope Francis reminded us that we have the power to dignify and illumine our mutual humanity by the way we treat each other every day. This may be done in the small interactions of home and work or in the bigger interactions of our national behaviour. We can choose to affirm and respect each other or we can choose to bully and belittle. We honour the holiness in others when we recognise the humanity we share is our common story.
This episode reminded me of the story of Joseph Merrick, the elephant man. Merrick too suffered from the disease of neurofibromatosis type 1 which deformed his head and body. His life story was one of sadness and alienation and he was exhibited in a travelling circus as a human freak for the Victorian curious. But behind a body that was physically ravaged was a gentle soul.
The eventual kindness of the medical fraternity enabled him to live out his days with dignity. Dr Treves and his confreres were able to see beyond the physical and understand that Joseph’s heart was no different to their own. This story has a parallel with the parable of the Good Samaritan who assisted the traveller robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho. The Samaritan helped the stranger because he was a human being, kin in the family of this species, and therefore deserving of compassion.
On Holy Thursday last year Francis washed the feet of young detainees. This action was quietly radical – and he went even further by including a young woman and a Muslim youth in this ceremony. Such actions, particularly to those whose lives are scarred, reinvests them with the dignity that is their sacred birth right.
Francis is following his leader. It is what Jesus did when he included the poor, blind and lame, the lost and dispossessed in his ministry; when he offered them the restoration of their human dignity as children of God.
Around the globe, there are millions of people whose human dignity is compromised. They are the trafficked women, the slave labourers, the malnourished children, the working poor, those who are silenced, the refugees, the child who has not been given the chance to learn, those who suffer physically and mentally, the victims of oppression or brutal government policy or domestic violence.
At the end of the letters Joseph Merrick wrote, he adapted a poem by Isaac Watts called False Greatness and asked that, ‘I would be measured by the soul’.
Let us be measured by our souls in the way we dignify all that is human and holy in each other.