the practice of respect

“I don’t just give respect. You have to earn it.”

I’ve never understood that idea. It requires a level of magical thinking that just doesn’t work for me: “I expect you to understand what I value, what kinds of actions I admire, and act in accordance with them before I will recognize your worth and value.” How am I supposed to know that? Sure, you could tell me – but at that point, am I taking actions that are authentically motivated, or am I doing them in an attempt to buy your respect through my actions.

It’s a common trope in dramas: someone, usually a son, does some heinous action or some complex plot to finally get some father figure’s respect (Inception, I’m looking at you). Or the flip side, when someone, usually a woman, chooses to take independent action (often sexually related) and is asked “Don’t you have any self-respect?

Um, yes. In fact, I know for a fact that it was when I was trying to live up to external expectations that I showed the least self-respect.

courtesy grahamc99 via Flickr CC

Given, Not Earned

I would like to put forth the idea that respect is not ever something you can really earn from anyone else – not in any genuine sense of the term. Rather, I think that respect is something that can only be given. I can choose to respect someone, based on whatever criteria I choose. What is respect, anyway? I’m not going to choose the easy route and look it up – instead, just think for yourself: what does respecting someone mean? Here’s some of the things that I can think that it means:

  • Admiration, perhaps even emulation
  • Inherent Value
  • Acknowledging their right to self-determination
  • Seeking their counsel, or simply their presence
  • Listening to what they have to say, and seeking to understand it

Now, I’m not saying that one should admire everyone. Nor is everyone qualified to give counsel on any subject (present company included). But I also don’t think that there’s any reason not to acknowledge inherent value, a right to self-determination, and above all seeking to listen, not just hear, and to understand, not just respond.

I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a level of respect offered to any human being. Notice it did not excuse them from the consequences of their actions, nor does it have any expectation that they will extend the same respect to me.

They don’t need to. I have my self-respect, and part of it is the necessity of giving respect to everyone I meet and know, even those that I despise with a passion.

But it takes practice. Constant practice and vigilance, and there are times when I have to remind myself that respect applies even when someone is not present to feel it. Gossip doesn’t hurt only the subject of the comments – it lessens the people talking with each other as well.

If I were a better philosopher, I could probably draw some direct comparisons between “respect” and “compassion” – both as concepts and as practices. As it is, I just have this feeling that the two go hand in hand. On a hot July afternoon, that’s enough.

What do you think? Is it possible to earn respect? Or is it simply something that you can increase the odds of being given by leading a good life?

2 thoughts on “the practice of respect”

  1. I don’t believe in the notion of going from “0 to respect.” I offer a basic level of respect to everyone that I meet, simply by virtue of the fact that I acknowledge them as beings with whom I share the common thread of humanity and within whom I can assume that the capacity for good exists.

    Beyond that, my level of respect for someone can follow three veins.

    1. It can remain at that basic level of respect. This is mostly in people who are strangers or with whom I just don’t spend much time/those I don’t know well. I don’t have enough experience with these folks to know whether or not my feelings towards them should be changing.

    2. It can perpetually deepen. This is generally in the people I come to know well and care for. These people, through their actions, engender trust in me and live their lives in ways that I find admirable.

    3. It can be diminished. This happens when people, through their words or deeds, make it clear to me that following through on their potential for good is of little interest to them. Whether through malice, arrogance, or neglect, they harm others and just do downright shady things. To a point, I respect these people less than I do strangers.

    There are some people in the world that I have only the barest respect, in the way that one believes, in theory, that a person getting hit by a bus isn’t a good thing to wish for. You have to do something very awful to diminish my respect for you to this level.

    So in a way, I believe that people can always gain or lose respect. But I personally don’t believe that anyone ever starts at zero.

    1. I agree pretty much completely. I also feel that even when people do sink that low, there is a certain level of respect I maintain not for their sake, but for my own. There’s a level of dignity that they are afforded even when they don’t deserve it — because I want to be the kind of man who gives it.

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