20 years ago or so, while sitting in Grant Park in downtown Chicago, my companion looked around and then said something that struck me pretty hard at the time and has been a strong cord of learning and growth ever since. “Look at all of these people around us. Isn’t it incredible that each of them has their own life and story, every bit as complex as our own?” I had never thought of that. This dawning realization had a more impressive impact standing there with thousands of people in view and I immediately recognized that it was no less true every day. I feel it now as almost a near death experience. Faces began to flash before me. Faces that I recognized as the cardboard representations of the people who had been around me all of my life. For I had rarely, really, truly looked at folks with any depth.
Due to personality, a series of potent events, and my environment growing up, I grew up feeling isolated from the world around me. I largely lived inside my own head. I felt an outsider, rejected. This day in Chicago marked the first crack in the gate to understanding that I had been rejecting the world and people around me. I had not been seeing the world beyond my own concerns regarding how I fit in and how I felt and thought that the world was affecting me. I was not seeing past my story of people to realize that they have their own story. In fact, their own story that has little to do with me, only touches on my story here and there and even then does not match up with my own experiences and memories.
Growing up, I felt rebellious against the word respect. This was in part due to my misunderstanding of the word and ambiguity in common usage. There is respect that is earned that moves in the direction of admiration. With this definition in mind, orders to “Respect your elders” and “respect your teachers” was met with resentment and disagreement by me. Folks don’t earn my admiration just by being older than me or choosing to educate children as their means of earning income.
There is a subtler and perhaps more important meaning of respect. This is the appreciation that the universe is infinitely more wonderful and complex than we can even scratch the surface in understanding and that every different perspective is a universe unto itself. As applies to people, each has their own experiences, stories, ideals, reasons for existence that is entirely different from our own. However well we think we may know someone, there are still worlds of things to learn and they continue to change in every moment. There is no objective reality. The stories we maintain are just that. Everything that we see, hear, feel, taste, sense, take in in any way, comes to us via our own unique filter and then runs through many layers of subjective algorithms as time passes. If two people watch the same movie scene, each will have their own interpretation that may be radically different even though this scene has been carefully crafted, edited, produced to have a very specific effect. Now reflect on how wide ranging the interpretations of a quick text or e-mail crafted by someone who is not a writer by trade. Then follow the exponential potential for misunderstanding in a string of quick messages sent back and forth in a group by folks who are not recognizing responsibility for their own feelings and interpretations.
The basic level of respect is opening to seeing depth around us, seeing into the mystery, relaxing our gaze and adherence to our own story lines allowing us to take in new perspectives. This basic level of respect opens us up to learning and growth. It also opens us to the earned respect and admiration. Using this definition of respect, “Respect everyone and everything, including yourself” seems to make more sense than singling out elders, teachers, bosses, etc..
Respect is the most critical component of peaceful communication. Remembering that the entirety of our experience in every moment is completely within us, largely created or chosen by us, and taking ownership of this in our words is crucial to not infiltrating another’s domain with our personal version of reality.