Measurement is the assignment of numbers to objects or events and it is a global obsession. I see people with little dinky things that measure how many steps they take and websites where the whole world can give a random person a ‘hot or not’ score out of 10! We have never been able to measure so much but do we understand less?

Underlying our highly measured world are the intangibles – the things we can’t count but the things we count on. In my work I have been privileged to witness dignity, compassion and grace in the face of adversity – three key “intangibles” in the post-disaster recovery process.

A friend asked me the other day “How do we transcend self-interest and teach kindness?” I have been thinking about this question a lot and the people who have shown me how this is done.

I think of the time I had to tell a group of Maldivian women displaced by the Tsunami that the construction schedule for their new homes had been delayed yet again. Nervously I expected the worse (it had been years) but they said “Sister, we understand. It is like a tree, to be good and strong it will take time to grow”.

I think of the time in Christchurch when a Red Cross recovery volunteer sat with me and through tears told powerful stories of the hardship he was seeing and the refrain from earthquake affected people that rang in his ears: “I’m starting to feel my life is no longer mine”. He reframed my thinking – I put on a volunteer jacket and walked his path for the rest of the day.

I think of the elderly Nepalese woman crouched under a tarp after losing her village and possessions (the unstable land collapsed into a river during a flood). “Please daughter, come and share some food with me”, she said offering her ration of Red Cross rice. I bent down and found a spot under the tarp and we sat together. I looked at her kind and weather-beaten face, tears welled up in her already watery eyes as I patted her gently on the back.

I think of the Government official in South Asia who has made her home between a rock and a hard place. Wading through the muck of corruption on the one hand, absorbing the frustration of her disaster affected people on the other and always keeping the door open for the wave of international donors so full of ambition but so often empty of understanding. She has her compass set and she inspires others to be better.

So this leads me to my best shot at answering the question: “how do we transcend self-interest and teach kindness?” I figure that every single time each one of us has the courage to protect human dignity, to show compassion and are gracious in the face of adversity we unconsciously offer a gift – the opportunity for someone else to learn.

Post-disaster recovery by its very nature can become a financial and political juggernaut that can ride rough shod over humanitarian need and dignity. The greater our collective commitment to these three intangibles – human dignity, compassion and grace – the less likely it is that we will experience ‘moral failure’ – the pursuit of financial or political ‘success’ at the expense of people’s humanitarian needs, dignity and aspirations.

I’m not sure when compassion fell from our vocabulary or how kindness slipped off the radar never to be included in a set of “core competencies” never considered a “key performance indicator?” Not measured so not valued perhaps? I am interested in your thoughts……

To conclude, Desmond Tutu has a question for us all – How are you going to use your potential, your gifts, and your time to increase the dignity of others?

What Does Dignity Mean to You? Check out the music video for the song produced for World Dignity Day.


Photo Taken at Red Cross Museum, Geneva

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