“Is treating someone respectfully fundamentally different from respecting him, her, or it?”
I posed this question in my first blog post in 2022, and I return to it in my last. (Though technically, it’s 2023 already, today is New Year’s Day Observed on the iPhone calendar.)
In the last year, I have reflected on, written about, and invited your comments on various instances of respect—situations I have encountered in daily life that have caused me to examine the meaning of respect more closely. For example, I wrote about respecting others through an open, honest, invitational style of communication embraced by Maine’s CDC Director, Dr. Nirav Shah, as he interacted with the people of our state during the height of the COVID pandemic.
I shared the “Just Like Me” practice of recognizing that everyone, even those whose ideas and actions are sometimes antithetical to our own, has many of the same human attributes, desires, hopes, fears, sorrows, and losses as we do. This practice encourages points of identification to generate empathy and nurture even the tiniest grain of respect. In “Respect Amid Conflict,” I wrote about two principles crucial to navigating conflict respectfully: understanding oneself and seeking to understand the other, ferreting out one’s deepest motivations and underlying assumptions, and keeping an open heart and mind about the experience and perspective of the other.
In “Respect in Extremis,” I reflected on respecting the essence of a human being when accomplishments, attractiveness, and self-control are stripped away at the end of life. In the article titled “What Is,” I illustrated the habit of noticing and accepting the ordinary miracle of each moment, welcoming and flowing with it instead of resisting and wishing things were different. In “Two Tales About Respect,” I explored how experiencing disrespect from another may tap into our lack of self-respect. I also exemplified how inner doubt and confusion about the right thing to do in a situation can cause one to act disrespectfully toward others.
The three posts about my friends Jack and Vicky dealt in depth with their experience of years of homelessness, followed by a brief period of stable housing, Vicky’s severe illness, and ultimately their deaths within two weeks of each other. The articles, telling the story of our friendship, were my memorial gift to honor them. Their backgrounds and life experience and mine were dramatically different, yet we came to understand, respect, and love one another. And finally, “Respecting Limitations and Letting Go.” Recognizing and accepting our limitations and those of others is a lesson we must all learn as we grow older. Learning to let go when the time is right will prepare us for the end of life when we must ultimately let go of everything.
So, back to the original question: “Is treating someone respectfully fundamentally different from respecting him, her, or it?” I’m currently living in a divisive atmosphere. There are many perspectives on the problem we share, but for clarity, I think I can safely say that two slightly porous camps have emerged. Each wants respect from the other. Each desires to be heard, understood, honored and treated kindly and politely. Trust has been damaged, and respect is frayed and floundering.
But can we treat each other respectfully, even if each camp has done and said things that have damaged the esteem we formerly felt for one another? And would respectful words and actions move us toward restoring genuine respect? Would they help us navigate this situation, repair the divisions, and solve the problems?
And what would treating each other with respect look like, even if we are not feeling it? We could begin with the old gem, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That might include giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, not presuming to understand all the complicated nuances of the situation or the difficulties others face. Listen and communicate. Recognize defensiveness in yourself, but don’t act out. Don’t say hurtful things, be gentle, and practice courtesy. Don’t avoid one another (downcast eyes, looking away) but take risks to build genuine relationships. Listen; communicate. Keep things in perspective by remembering to be grateful. Notice the good and speak up about it. Keep working at the solution, don’t give up or bail. Listen and communicate directly, face-to-face, and eye-to-eye. Behave respectfully, and you may earn respect.
So, I would posit that treating someone respectfully is not fundamentally different from respecting that person. Famously it is said you can’t make peace; you have to be peace. You can’t create respect; you have to be respect.