Noticing Respect in 2022

“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.

Two Tales About Respect

One – Self-Respect

I’m trying to help someone hard of hearing fill a prescription for her asthma inhaler. First, I call the pharmacy to see if the refill order we submitted several days ago has been filled. The pharmacist tells me the inhaler is ready for pick up, so I send S off to the pharmacy to get it. She returns and says that the inhaler costs $50 more than it did the last time she refilled it; insurance has refused to pay for it, and the pharmacist recommends calling the insurance company. I sigh because this has happened before, and sorting it out has not gone smoothly, but I make the call.

The customer service representative tells me that, oddly enough, for this script, the brand inhaler is less expensive ($50) than the generic, and the doctor has ordered the generic, which costs $100. Still, he says, there should be no problem because he can see on S’s record that the pharmacy placed a claim yesterday for $50 for the brand inhaler. So why I ask, is the pharmacy now trying to charge $100? He says he doesn’t know; I should call the pharmacy back.

I do. The pharmacist says the insurance company is wrong; the doctor prescribed the $100 generic, but the patient refused to accept it, so they canceled the order. The calm tone in my voice deteriorates, and its pitch rises. I am frustrated. The insurance company is saying one thing, the pharmacy another. I try again to explain what the insurance agent has said and ask the pharmacist why a claim was made yesterday for $50. The pharmacist denies this. Why can’t they just give us the brand version, I ask. The pharmacist repeats, slowly, as if talking to a child, that she can do nothing more to help except call the doctor’s office on our behalf, or I can call instead. I ask her to stop and listen to me. I say I’m not stupid, and she responds that she didn’t say I was stupid. I counter, “You are talking to me like I am stupid.” Suddenly, a light goes off in my head, flashing neon red – DISRESPECT! 

Now I am angry. I snap at the pharmacist, “Never mind. I will call the doctor’s office and sort this out myself.” We hang up, and I do so. I try to explain calmly to the medical assistant that I’m frustrated and need to talk directly to a human being about a prescription refill—no voicemail, no leaving a message. This is an emergency. The patient has asthma and needs her inhaler right away. I explain the cost differential between brand and generic. The assistant gets it, takes the matter in hand, puts me on hold for a couple of minutes, then returns to say it’s all set. They have sent a script for the brand inhaler to the pharmacy. I hang up and feel relieved. Then S comes to me holding her phone, which transcribes voicemails into texts. She shows me a text from the pharmacy, received while I was on the phone with the doctor’s office, saying they have sorted everything out, re-run the prescription for the brand version, and it’s ready for pick up. No apology and no recognition that there had been any previous confusion. “OMG! Why didn’t they do that in the first place?” I scream.

Later, I reflect on this incident. First, I am embarrassed and ashamed of my childish and rude behavior toward the pharmacist. Second, I realize that the moment I felt disrespected, my controlled frustration turned into boiling anger. Then I ask myself why feeling disrespected disturbs me so much. Suddenly I have a flash of insight; someone else’s disrespectful treatment triggers my lack of respect for myself—my deep-rooted sense that I am stupid, inadequate, and unacceptable. So, besides working on breathing and calming down when disrespect provokes anger, I must also work on respecting myself. And that is a really tall order! But, if I can do that, perhaps it will help me genuinely respect the others I encounter in pharmacies, doctor’s offices, insurance companies, and everywhere. 

Does this ring a bell, touch a nerve, or resonate with you?

Two – Other Respect

It’s 11:00 a.m. on a hot summer day. I pull into the parking lot of a memory care facility where I am visiting a patient. When I exit my car, I notice a small dog in the car parked next to mine. Alarm bells go off in my head as I remember all the warnings about leaving children and animals in closed-up vehicles in hot weather. The driver cracked all four windows about two inches, but it must still be sweltering inside the car. What shall I do? I decide to go inside and ask the receptionist if they know who owns the vehicle. They don’t. I’m pretty worked up by this time, wondering what to do, so I go back to the car and try the passenger side door. To my great relief, it opens. The little dog, looking forlorn but okay, lays on the front passenger seat and looks up at me with sad eyes.

The dog is no longer the problem, but I know the owner will be one. So I decide to wait until they return and confront them about leaving the dog in a hot car. I wait about 10 minutes, petting the dog on the head, talking soothingly to it, and looking around for the owner. I worry about what to say to them but can’t settle on anything that feels comfortable, so when he arrives, I haven’t decided what to say, and I’m not ready.

I begin badly. “This is terrible; it’s too hot to leave a dog in a closed car!” His back goes up immediately, and he defensively explains that he is taking care of an elderly father who lives in this facility; he takes excellent care of this dog and doesn’t need my interference to add to his stress load. Besides, it’s not that hot, and he’s only been gone 15 minutes; the dog would have been fine. He slams the passenger door, gets in the car, and drives off. I’m angry and embarrassed and know I have handled the situation poorly, but I try to put it aside and visit the patient I’ve come to see.

Later, as I reflect on the incident, still feeling uncomfortable about my reaction, I try to rationalize my behavior. Probably the dog would have been okay, but how was I to know how long the owner had been gone or when he would return? What if the door had not been unlocked? Would I have called the police? That would have made an enormous scene. Should I have suggested that the next time he leaves the dog in the car, he should leave a note on the window saying how long he would be gone? Should I have expressed sympathy about his stress? However disrespectfully I behaved toward the owner, I still did not regret my intervention on behalf of the dog.

After more self-examination, I realized that I spent the entire ten minutes waiting for the owner’s return stewing about how to confront him. Instead, I could have paused, identified the roots of my feelings and calmed them, opened my mind and heart to the owner’s perspective, and chosen a kind, non-aggressive approach to intervention. One takeaway—if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. I knew nothing about the life of this dog owner, but I chose to judge him and find him unworthy of respect.

I still don’t believe he should have left his dog in the car, but I hope I will respond less self-righteously, more courteously, and skillfully in similar future situations.

Does this ring a bell, touch a nerve, or resonate with you?