Seeing Dignity ...
This weekend I finally saw “The Intouchables,” a 2011 film based on the true story of a French, wealthy quadriplegic who hires a man convicted of petty theft to be his caregiver. The quadriplegic, Philippe, has been through many caregivers. He is a widower who lost the use of most of his body in a paragliding accident. He is bitter and does not like the way that most highly skilled caregivers treat him more like a patient than a person. Meanwhile, Driss applies for the job simply to obtain governmental unemployment benefits, assuming that Philippe will never hire him. Philippe is intrigued by this man who shows him little respect, and hires Driss. The two begin a relationship that is different than any either of them had known. Philippe is finally able to rediscover a joy for life and reimagine what his life can be. Meanwhile, Driss begins to see that he can have value too – that perhaps he can start anew with life, providing for his family and having a new sense of self-worth.
What I loved about this film was two-fold. First, I had anticipated this being a sober, but triumphal movie. Instead, I found myself laughing throughout the film – not at a slapstick humor, but at the kind of humor one develops when things get so bad that laughter is both the inappropriate and most appropriate thing to do. It is an irreverent humor that only two characters who have been pushed to the margins can deeply enjoy, and yet, those outcasts invite us in to our own darkness and bring us out with laughter. The second thing I loved about this movie is the way in which each character was able to see humanity in one who had been stripped of their humanity. For Philippe, his physical disability had taken away his ability to full participate in society. Society struggled to see any value in him beyond his money – which is not a value for which anyone wants to be known. For Driss, he was a criminal who was unable to hold down a job and be a responsible citizen. Society struggled to see any value in him, leaving him limited options. And yet, in Philippe, Driss was able to unearth an adventurous, funny, sarcastic man of compassion and fortitude. And in Driss, Philippe was able to unearth a sympathetic, strong, talented man of wisdom and grace. In essence, they could see the humanity in one another.
When we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, one of the promises we make is to respect the dignity of every human being. Over and over we make that promise, and yet I think it is one of the hardest things we promise to do. It is very difficult to respect the dignity of the guy who cuts you off in traffic. It is very difficult to respect the dignity of your family member who constantly puts you down. It is very difficult to respect the dignity of the man who kills nine Christians in a church because of their race. This past Sunday, as we were editing the Prayers of the People, I found I had no problem listing the names of the deceased from Charleston. Where I struggled was adding the killer’s name to our list too. That action went against every instinct in my body, and yet, some small ache made me feel like I had to add him too.
Respecting the dignity of every human being is not a one-time action. It takes a lifetime of practice. We fail at it all the time, but we keep recommitting to the work because we promised we would at our baptism. What encouraged me about that work this week, was the relationship between Philippe and Driss. Watching two men, so dramatically different, and yet similar in the way that society treated them as outcasts, heartily laugh from the depths of their souls gave me hope. They gave me hope that I might see the dignity of others through my own brokenness. The promise for my work is that I too would find the joy that only hearty, full-bodied laughter can bring.