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.

Just Like Me – Respecting Difficult People

In their 2018 book Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush introduce a practice geared to generate understanding, respect, and compassion for others. It’s called Just Like Me. While it can be used with friends, acquaintances, or neutral persons, I believe it is particularly beneficial for identifying with those we think are radically different from us and for whom we find it difficult to feel sympathy.

Calling to mind a person we dislike, disagree with, hate, or hold in contempt, we are encouraged to repeat the following phrases: This person

… has a body and a mind, just like me.

… has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.

… has experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.

… has at some time been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.

… has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.

… worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.

… will die, just like me.

… has longed for friendship, just like me.

… is learning about life, just like me.

… wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.

… wants to be content with what life has given them, just like me.

… wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.

… wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.

… wishes to be happy, just like me.

… wishes to be loved, just like me.

I first encountered this practice on a retreat during 2020. I cannot now recall whether the retreat came before or shortly after the US Presidential election, but when the facilitator asked us to call to mind a difficult person, Donald Trump popped into my head immediately. Donald Trump is nothing like me; I protested internally! I quickly searched for another, less challenging person, but I could not quickly come up with anyone. So, I closed my eyes, called up a mental image of President Trump, and began repeating the phrases silently after the facilitator. I encourage you to go back and read them now with Trump or any challenging person in mind.

I was astounded by how many times I could say with sincerity that Mr. Trump was “just like me!”  I must admit I had some difficulty with “has felt unworthy or inadequate,” “has longed for friendship,” “is learning about life,” “wants to be caring and kind to others,” and “wants to be content with what life has given them.” However, I could embrace enough statements for the exercise to reveal our likeness and soften my heart slightly. Perhaps removing the word “just” would make the practice even more palatable.

Next comes the even more challenging pursuit of wishing the difficult person well, using phrases including:

I wish this person to be free from pain and suffering.

I wish this person to be peaceful and happy.

I wish this person to be loved because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.

The point is to consider respecting the other, not for what they have said or done, but because I acknowledge their humanness—their actions and words may have arisen from very human desires, fears, suffering, and losses, as do mine. In this practice, respect does not equate with approval, praise, agreement, or even tolerance but, instead, involves understanding and empathy. Therefore, treating the difficult person with respect may entail giving them the benefit of the doubt and offering compassion rather than mockery, rebuke, denunciation, or bitter criticism.

“And what would such respect look like concerning Mr. Trump?” I ask myself. Perhaps it would involve refraining from posting unflattering pictures of him on Facebook or liking jokes at his expense on social media. Maybe it would rule out repeating plausible but unsubstantiated stories about his actions or words or stoking fires of anger and hatred against him. Such restraint would mean forgoing delicious opportunities for cleverness and self-righteousness. 

On the positive side, it means offering genuine good wishes for healing, clarity, and humility, hoping that his heart will open with understanding and compassion, just as I hope that mine will open. I am convinced that sending positive energy in his direction cannot do the slightest harm.

Does all of this sound pollyannaish? Then take Trump out of the equation and substitute your problematic next-door neighbor, the family member who disrupts every holiday gathering, the boss who criticizes everything you do, or the friend who breaks your confidence. Even the dog who won’t stop barking! How can a dog be just like me? Think danger, fear, boredom, confusion, pain, past trauma, and family heritage.

Religious and secular platitudes about this “just like me” concept include The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Buddhist idea of interbeing and interdependence (no left, no right, no up, no down, no you, no me) also captures the notion. The once-popular song Walk A Mile In My Shoes suggests how we gain respect for those we find difficult or different. (I’d encourage you to listen to this cool old music video.)

The bottom line—to respect those who do not seem to deserve our respect, we must see what we have in common with them. Yes, we are different, but what essential qualities unite us? And how can we act respectfully while disagreeing, resisting, and taking a stand against our opponents?