Crockett Johnson’s 1955 children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, tells the story of a boy and his empurpled crayon alone in the world. When Harold doesn’t use his trusty companion to draw, the pages he travels are barren and white. When, however, he employs its mighty illustrative powers, Harold creates a whole universe around him in which he embarks on a hero’s journey that eventually leads him home.
Like all heroes, Harold has his fair share of ups and downs along the way, which he bravely chooses to face head on. In fact, the plot of his story is formed by a series of crises: Harold plummeting from a mountain and then rising from his terrifying descent by drawing a balloon to catch him; Harold, over his head in the ocean, crafting a trim little boat to save him; Harold pushing ever-forward by drawing a future. In its simplest interpretation, Harold and the Purple Crayon is a tale of personal fortitude, grit, and resilience. And yet our pajama-clad hero’s message is about something much deeper and more spiritual than simply bouncing back or bootstrapping it; it’s about how we get up.
We have choices in that moment when we dust ourselves off, and paths to take when we start out again: Do we move forward by scratching and clawing our way over the backs of others, conforming to what everyone else is doing and/or dutifully and thoughtlessly following the leader? Or do we get up and keep going in a way that is self-possessed and assures that the person we were before the difficulty arose remains after the worst of it is over? Johnson’s book is about this kind of civilized and self-protecting fortitude; a lesson in how to remain steadfast in grace and civility as we innovatively overcome. To “creatively suffer,” is how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described this gentle toughness—this higher form of fortitude. We call it “dignity.”
Like a lot of words, dignity can mean many different things, and can’t be fully grasped if defined by only one of those things. At its root, dignity speaks of worthiness and value. At its outer crust, it refers to a person acting honorably or dignified. The “honor” implied in dignity has to do with a person sticking to values that stand for who they are as much as it has to do with the fact that the values they stand for are not totally self-serving. To be honorable is to be willing to sacrifice oneself or one’s needs. There is also decency in honor—the decency to live with civilized standards like graciousness and hospitality, which help us get along. Modern dignity means all these selfless things, but it’s also about our ability to stay true to ourselves and value our inherent worthiness as human beings. It’s about standing up for our own original beings, and our belief in what Dr. King called the “sacredness of human personality.”
King, catapulted into fame the same year that Harold appeared on the scene, was a very modern theologian, and his focus on “the content of character” as a sacred sight reflects what we mean by dignity: a kind of 20th-century edition of “human” dignity that takes what was once a term used for dignitaries, and hands it, instead, to the masses. From this came the concept of human rights, which, as exemplified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations just three years after the closing of Auschwitz, expands the idea of freedom to include our right to self-determine. Human rights are also about the right to be self-made, an ideal that has been all but destroyed by the dominant trend of success-by-force. Self-made, meaning here to make a self, is to create; to live by the Emersonian edict that “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” It is about giving voice to the “disquieting complexity of ourselves,” as James Baldwin wrote in his book Notes on a Native Son, published the year of Harold’s birth. It is demanding that we moderns fight the ever-invasive Moloch of commercialism and its demand for conformity, as Allen Ginsberg described in his inimitable poem “Howl,” which was read publicly for the first time that year.
You don’t know what you treasure until it is threatened. In 1955, a lot of people began to howl—and loudly—about our dignifying right to cherish our sacred personalities and guard them with our lives, and sent messages forward for future generations bottled in literature, art, music, philosophy, theology, the social sciences, and protest. Johnson, and through him Harold, joined with these many others to celebrate originality before it was too late. His book was one such message placed in its own bottle, then set out to sea.
By itself, human fortitude has a dark and undignified side. Do the four words “we will rise again” send chills up your spine? They should. As Ann Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian on authoritarianism describes it, such movements are often the result of masses of people looking for a way to recover from a national trauma or trend that they find threatening in order to return to an idealized vision of the past. They are searching for a simpler time; one they believe to be threatened by the complexity of diversity and personal originality. It’s abundantly clear that this form of fortitude does not belong solely to foreign regimes; it’s part of a national trend in this country, where making things “great again” is consistently uttered from a place of contempt with distaste for diversity in ideas and people. In Harold and the Purple Crayon, Johnson, concerned about such trends in his own era, offered a way to buck them through the creative meanderings of his diminutive, but determined, hero.
At the core of Johnson’s book is a lesson about how vital it is to take an innovative approach to challenges when building a dignified life. Harold’s beautiful purple renderings are not art for art’s sake; he draws them to sustain who he is. Harold holds as sacred the unique intuitions, impulses, values, and tastes that render him, “Harold.” Thus, the thing he uses to protect his dignity and the thing he’s protecting that makes him dignified are the same: his one-of-a-kind soul.
To become a self and to be a self is what the great psychoanalytic thinker D.W. Winnicott called “going-on-being,” or, in other words, to sustain a sense of a then-me/now-me/future-me, and to do so despite disruptions in your path. To go on being is not to live in bliss; it is to be forever recovering from drowning in the experience of losing yourself, then creatively pulling yourself back up in order to swim on with your “you-ness” intact. That’s really the ideal in the concept of “the sacredness of human personality”: Our dignity rests in our ability to stay originally ourselves despite challenges. The opposite is also true: There is sacrilege when we don’t.
By approaching life creatively, Harold maintains a sense of continuity that does not rely on the consistency of the world around him. In a world in which we can no longer depend fully on unquestioned traditions and deities to lead the way, that’s important for both kids and adults to comprehend. Harold keeps getting up and “going-on” by contributing to culture as much as he takes out. He is, in British sociologist Anthony Giddens’ terms, “ontologically secure”—capable of finding meaning despite the shifts and fissures in meaning around him.
“The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to,” wrote the great psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm in his classic book, Escape From Freedom. “He cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.” Harold’s lesson in creative self-reliance is especially important as we face the challenge of getting up and “going-on” after repeated collective disruptions to our beings, and the fears that follow: the pandemic, four years of an anomic presidency, the mass shootings, the environmental catastrophes, and the ever-present danger of authoritarianism. It might take a little work for us adults to learn (or relearn) this lesson. Children, on the other hand, understand Harold right off the bat. Like all great children’s-book heroes, Harold speaks directly to his cohort in terms they are able to understand, while also nudging adults to wake from their paint-by-numbers sleep.
I have a tattoo on my leg of Harold adamantly drawing his purple lines; a constant and dependable message to myself that play and creativity are life’s meal, not its gravy. Like a lot of adults, I need this reminder to keep my creative nose to the grindstone in order to remain a resilient self, with dignity, even when—especially when—things are terrifying. I like the permanence of the tattoo, especially since my own falls out of artful living and recoveries of selfhood are permanent fixtures in my life, too.
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