You are worthy

I begin with how Dr. Thema Bryant, president of the American Psychological Association, ended her public conversation with me at the 2023 William Preston Few Lecture earlier this month in Duke Chapel. Her final message to the audience that evening was: “You are worthy. You are worthy of care. You are worthy of respect. You are worthy of safety. You are worthy of joy.”

This is an absolutely essential message as the world endures the vicious cycle of violence again. These three words — "you are worthy" — can be a balm for our souls no matter what bombs explode in our lives. You have worth and value as a human being therefore you should be honored, respected, trusted and included (see Duke’s values). Any act or word of violence is the denial of another person, but to say “you are worthy” is a statement of affirmation.

Poet Warsan Shire describes holding a world atlas map on her lap and running her fingers across the whole world. She whispered the question to the world, “Where does it hurt?” and the world answered, “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.” There is hurt everywhere. But what if we walked around campus and rather than saying “hello” to others, our greeting was “You are worthy”? Rather than hurt, this might offer needed healing.

What might that new greeting do to our psyche, our mood, our relationships, our behavior? Perhaps every encounter would become a rendezvous of love rather than one tainted with fear or suspicion of the other. A triple-graduate of Duke, Dr. Bryant researches interpersonal trauma and societal trauma of oppression through the Culture and Trauma Research Lab at Pepperdine University, where she is a professor of psychology. She’s fully aware of the damage done to people through relationships, wars, religions and politics. Trauma can terrorize individuals for their entire lives, so much so that they never seem to triumph over it.

Knowing that “you are worthy” might give you the impetus to overcome it. It’s not linguistic magic by any means, but — when one considers the mental health challenges of our time — Bryant said: “The truth is many of us can feel unseen,” she said. “You can walk across campus and feel invisible ... And so the hunger and longing to be known, accepted, appreciated, valued, even missed if you are not present is something that many people, including young people, are missing.” In other words, to tell someone, “You are worthy” could make a difference in that person’s life regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Saying those words can make someone feel seen and accepted.

An important theme for Dr. Bryant, who is a minister in addition to being a professor and clinical psychologist, is homecoming. It is a theme that is beautifully expressed in a famous story (or parable) that Jesus tells in the Bible.

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one told his father that he wanted to receive his inheritance early while he was still living. Once he received his share of his family’s wealth, this son traveled to a distant region and squandered all his money. A severe famine took place in that region, so he had to find a job just to eat. He hired himself out to someone who sent him to his field to feed pigs. He was so hungry and desperate that he was willing to eat the pods the pigs were eating. Finally, when he came to his senses, he decided that he would return to his father and say to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:19). So, he set off for his home to see his father. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Instead of condemning his wayward son, the father found the best robe, a ring and sandals to put on his son. And, he requested a fatted calf to eat. The father threw his son a party! Through his extravagant gestures, he showed his son that he was worthy no matter what.

Know that you are worthy. So come on home.

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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