On the Experiential Demands of Human Dignity

This weekend, my colleague Julia and I—along with our summer batch of interns, our president, and one of his headquarters interns—welcome to New Hampshire twenty students from around the world for our International Summer Camp (ISC).

Sure, ISC is an academic and formative experience, but beyond it, it is an experience of solidarity, which authentically arises only out of an awareness and respect for human dignity: our own dignity, as well as the dignity of those with whom we are in relationship; my I, encountering your I, you who are like me but also so unlike me.

This experience is key for many reasons. Primary among them, however, is that the intellectual truth of the dignity of the human person isn’t fully graspable for us until our individual being has fully experienced it, and has come to an ordered understanding of the concept. Certain truths, such as the essence of a tree, we find have a “bounded” experience to them in their concrete existence: the way that trees live doesn’t test—too much—how we understand trees as trees essentially. Other truths, such as the essence of a person (a rational animal, roughly), we find have a far more “unbounded” dimension to them in their concrete existence: individual people, in the way they behave, the way they choose, the way they are formed, the degree to which they have been loved, their intrinsic potential for a whole spectrum of experience, place an active pressure on us to integrate all the possibilities to better understand the essential definition we can come to intellectually.

Among contemporary psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists there exists the understanding that, prior to the emergence of any other capacity in its full potential, the person must receive affective love into one’s being—this love works on our emotions and our person to show us that it is good that we are, rather than show that it is good that we can do or good that we can achieve or good that we can prove our goodness. The human affective life and human heart have a structure that demands being called-into-life by another person in their fundamental recognition of goodness in our presence—in their fundamental recognition of our dignity.

Psychiatrist Conrad Baars calls this receptivity affirmation: “Authentic affirmation is, first of all, a state of being. Only secondarily may it lead to doing, to acts, to words, that may then complete the affirmation of the other. But they do not constitute the essence, the core of the affirming process.”[i]

Affirmation constitutes, in its essence, the being-present-to by another who, by means of his presence, and his psychomotor functions (visible, sensible, physical changes), demonstrates that he considers it good that you are.[ii]

The core distinction, then, that follows is that “[affirmation] is first of all affectivity, a matter of feeling. Only secondarily is it effectivity, a matter of doing.”[iii]

The alternatives to receiving this kind of affirmation are two: a complete lack of affirmation—which Baars calls denial[iv]; or the preference of doing over feeling or being, which doesn’t fulfill the fundamental precepts described and is therefore insufficient. Wherever affirmation is not received, a person acquires what Baars and Anna Terruwe, the psychiatrist who preceded him and with whom he collaborated, identified as frustration neurosis. The diagnosis of this neurosis contextualized the symptoms and experiences of many patients for whom other standard forms of therapy were insufficient, including one patient who observed that, no matter what the psychologists explained, all her being demanded was a demonstration of tenderness.[v] She just wanted to have the deeper, formative experience of being revealed her own dignity—and, until she had it, she would remain existentially frustrated.

Where a person experiences insufficient receptivity of tenderness, thwarted emotional life manifests in abnormal rapport with others, across all relationships; feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, inferiority, and inadequacy, each manifesting in different ways; and a sort of existential fear and frustration.[vi]

It seems to me, therefore, that even psychological study demonstrates very clearly the urgency of taking seriously the dignity of the person and the relationships in which that dignity is recognized and manifested. The worthiness and lovability of our own being are not a merely intellectual truth, but one to be experienced; the depth of the necessary experience is proportionate to the depth of the dignity possessed, proportionate to the objective truth that experience can “fill out.” It is for this reason that we human persons require the purest form of experience: the being-present-to-being kind of experience, where two gazes meet each other’s in an encounter that bridges the gap between persons, and nothing less; an experience that makes one.

This coming week, we hope to encounter our campers this way—two North American-born regional directors, a president from the Philippines, American and Colombian and Lithuanian interns, and campers coming from each part of the world. We couldn’t be more excited.

Written by Weronika Janczuk, WYA North America regional director.


[i] Conrad Baars, Born Only Once (Wipf & Stock, 2012), 15.

[ii] Cf., ibid., 23.

[iii] Ibid., 24.

[iv] Ibid., 32.

[v] Cf. Anna Terruwe and Conrad Baars, Loving and Curing the Neurotic: A New Look at Emotional Illness (Arlington House, 1972), 124.

[vi] Cf. ibid., 128-163.