“Respect is how to treat everyone.” Richard Branson
“Respect is appreciation of the separateness of the other person, of the ways in which he or she is unique.” Annie Gottlieb
“Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect. We must each respect others even as we respect ourselves.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is an idea that all people, all things even, merit respect, and / or that engaging such respect is a key to peaceful existence and a good life. This idea of non-hierarchical respect was deemed important enough to be given as the foundation for the United States Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“
Such is also the heart of much of Gandhi’s philosophy.
“Relationships are based on four principles: respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation.”
“In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance, but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.”
– Mohatma Gandhi
Non-hierarchical respect is considered by many to be the enlightened perspective.
“We are equal beings and the universe is our relations with each other.” – Thaddeus Golas, The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment
A challenge is that most modern written definitions of respect are hierarchical in nature. From Dictionary.com, “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”. I hope to show that this prominent modern notion of respect, not only misses the point, but is counter to the unifying principle at the heart of the word. It inflicts violence even upon those who are lauded. I offer here an attempt at clarity. I apply respect to “respect” and renew it by reflecting upon and contemplating the old and inviting its core virtue to come forward, to be revealed.
I invite you on a journey. I intend to explore this word respect and discover the deep meaning at the heart of it which has, perhaps, been obscured or corrupted. At the end of this journey, I intend to offer my best attempt at an elegant definition for non-hierarchical respect. For those of you who just can’t wait, I encourage you to skip straight to the “The Grand Reveal”. I don’t want to spoil the mystery, for those who appreciate such, by bringing it forward right away. And, I think that there is value, for those with the time and patience, to experience the exploration.
Concepts and archetypes evolve before words. They evolve from within, from personal experience and observation. Communication is about sharing personal experience and, where experience overlaps, cocreating collective experience and understanding. What is this core concept at the heart of ‘respect’? For that, let’s do a deep dive into etymology.
As we dive in, it seems useful to look at some highly related words with similar origin: Regard, Reflection, Reverence. It is no mere coincidence that these all start with ‘Re’. These words all evolve from Latin. ‘Re’ from Latin is commonly translated as ‘back’. At it’s simplest, this back means to do again: Rework, redo, repeat.
Let’s play with ‘repeat’ a bit. As a verb, in common usage, repeat indicates a single iteration “to say again”. In modern usage repeat may be used as a noun and applied to music, a song or a play list. One may say “I have that song on repeat”. Here this noun is describing a continuous state of being. The song will continue to go back and play again until this state of being is changed or the batteries run out.
This continuous sense of ‘re’ applies to those words we have carried with us on this dive. Note I use ‘we’ very carefully here. It means those who are still reading and with me. The reasons for this side-note will become clear later. This is potent. There is magick here. Respect, reflection, reverence, and regard are all relations to that which is continuously changing, moreover, things that are defined largely by their change and movement. Such observation can only occur through a continuously iterative process. A single snapshot takes the life out of it.
I See You
In the movie Avatar, The People use the phrase “I see you”. This phrase is used to signify a new understanding, a new empathy, often after dissonance or disagreement has occurred. It is a statement of respect.
‘Spect’ is commonly translated as ‘to see’. Thus respect means to see again, to see anew, to continuously look at with fresh eyes. To invite a wider meaning to respect which is consistent with the lineage of ‘spect’, I invite the idea that ‘spect’ means something more akin to experience or observe. An inspector is one who uses all senses and faculties available to them in ‘looking’ into something. Respect then becomes “to continually experience anew”. There you have it. So, why did we carry these other words with us?
I have now offered, what I think to be, an elegant and clear definition for respect. It seems still lacking something. The practice of respect involves some challenges and common pitfalls. It requires vigilance and work. Reflection and regard speak to these. The practice of respect also offers some incredible rewards and surprises. Reverence speaks to that. Let’s explore these to see what our definition picks up.
‘Flect’ from Latin is commonly translated to ‘bend’. A reflection is something that has bent by bouncing off of something else. As we observe the world around us much of what we are experiencing is reflection. The most prominent reflection is that of the self.
Our brains are designed for pattern storage and recognition. Some of these patterns evolve from our own experience. Some are stored in our DNA. Some evolve from language and culture. A few are fanciful fabrications of our minds. Many are a cocreation of some or all of these. What we sense is continually being compared, within our subconscious brain, to stored patterns. Much of what is then handed on to our conscious mind is an assemblage of stored patterns that approximates the world well enough for survival purposes… usually. Much of what we observe is a reflection of what is in us already. True respect requires accounting for that.
The primary evolutionary reason for quick, simple pattern recognition is safety: “Robin – not a threat”, “Oak Tree – not a threat”, “Turban – maybe a threat?”, “Lion – Oh Shit!”. In a culture where fear is sold and used to control and manipulate, many folks’ brains rarely step out of this mode.
In the information age, a high value is placed on things that may be readily put into words or numbers. Many of our brains were programmed, through education and cultural conditioning, to break the world down into words and numbers, “Robin – not a threat, orange breasted, harbinger of spring, blue eggs, can produce three successful broods in one year, Turdus migratorius (hmmf, hmmf, hmmf, I said Turd-us),…”. After filling out hundreds of forms and reading newspaper statistics and hearing political ads, our brains have been programmed to define ourselves and each other according to simple check boxes: white, male, 6’1″, brown eyes, brown hair (slightly graying), middle class, degree in engineering, muscular build, slight dad belly….
There is certainly value to pattern recognition and words and numbers and statistics. Yet, all of these are reflections of what is in us. They are not the actuality of what is before us. If one finds themselves challenged being among turban wearing men, this challenge is with the patterns stored within. If one blames the turban wearing men for their own discomfort, they are projecting their internal patterns onto the other. Lack of respect is an inability to see what is there. Disrespect takes this a step further. Disrespect involves unwanted stories and labels being projected into another’s identity space, it is violence (a willful insertion into another’s personal space).
Applying labels clouds vision and overlays the other with ideas and patterns stored within the self. If such labels are unwanted by the other, they are a violation of the other’s personal identity space.
“The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground” – Ernest Wood’s 1971 ‘Zen Dictionary’ (page 91-92)
We do not experience the world directly, we can only make inferences about the world from our own thoughts and experiences. Thus, everything that can be reflected upon is within the self. The more we try to figure out the world and its people by applying our pre-existing ideas and labels, the harder that we look at things, the more that we only see ourselves. Respect, seeing the other, requires awareness of this reflection. It requires a softening of the gaze, humility, curiosity, a desire for the mystery, a recognition of ignorance, an anticipation of surprise.
To look anew at this concept respect. We can consider the back of “re” as applying to space or perspective in addition to time. If we are “looking back” this connects with the understanding that there is another looking at us, that there is a mystery beyond the reflection.
I hope that you have come to the understanding that the boundary between what is me and what is not me is quite complex. It is possible for me to say that everything is me and nothing is me and not be wrong on either end of the spectrum. Personally, I don’t want to be here alone. I want others in my life. For multiple beings to interact peacefully, honoring of boundaries is required. To avoid overlaying the other with the self, or inserting the self into the other, requires careful vigilance. It requires guarding.
‘Gard’ evolves from Old French ‘garder’, to guard or to watch in a protective way. Regard is a close synonym to respect and often interlaced in definition. One cannot exist without the other. In order to maintain respect, we must be ever vigilant of the boundaries between us. Our watch must never end.
These boundaries are not simple. They move with us and change as we change. The easiest, which I hope all embodied beings can agree upon, is the extents of the physical body. Touching another’s physical body, manipulating it by force or coercion, entering it, or restraining it, without consent, is violent disrespect. A bit more challenging, yet equally important, is identity. Inserting unwanted stories or labels into another’s identity space is disrespect. I believe that similar regard is necessary for emotional and energetic bodies. These have much less defined edges, thus even more care and skill is needed. Stepping out a bit further, personal space, private possessions, private property, air waves… require compassionate communication and negotiation. There is enough complexity here for lifetimes of learning and growth.
“Reverence”, again via Latin is to stand in awe of. Again it is a continuous process and is the result of learning and growing in respect. When one drops away the first impressions of fear based pattern recognition; steps beyond trying to describe that around them with a few check boxes and; with humility and curiosity, opens their eyes and their heart to see; the infinite mystery stands before them in every moment. Every human, for example, has more atoms than there are stars in the observable universe. Each atom has a 13.5 billion year history and was forged in the belly of a remote star or the violent supernova of star death. We each are made up of carbon atoms that have been part of the body of every human that ever lived. The unique program, that makes up each physical form, has been refined over 4.5 billion years. Libraries could be written about what you don’t know about the folks closest to you. And, with all of this uniqueness, we humans are far more alike (99.9% or closer by DNA) than we are different. I think that’s AWESOME.
The Grand Reveal
Here is the most respectful definition of respect that I have to offer, thus far.
“To continuously experience anew, with regard for the subtle boundary between self and other, and consideration of the unique value of such experience.”
Life is about replication, expansion, cocreation. Life seeks immortality in the presence of death by spreading and melding into the grand pattern of creation. Such pressure to cocreate and procreate permeates more than just biology. As with genes, the memes, archetypes, concepts perspectives… flowing through us and forged within us desire to spread by being seen, heard, experienced. To be experienced is a survival need.
A hierarchical idea of respect means that only some get their survival needs met. This leaves those at the bottom scrabbling for more. Many consider violence to be justified and they aren’t wrong. Moreover, to obtain the titles, accolades, traits, possessions… that garner respect; many give up, hide or suppress their own authenticity. This suppressed self also seeks to be experienced. This leaves many with an unquenchable thirst for more.
Dominant culture, that which has taken over most of the world, has done so by dominating. This has certainly been done by force. And, the more elegant solution has been to get us to dominate ourselves and each other. I have written a good bit about labels and the associated disrespect. There are more insidious ways that dominant culture teaches disrespect. This disrespect has been woven into language. It includes corruption of some key words such as ‘respect’. It also includes some simpler words that may surprise you. I’ll leave you with just a few examples here.
“Should” inserts the idea that there is a right way to do things. It suggests that one perspective, whether personally or culturally derived, is ‘the’ perspective. This is the word that started my own dive into words and their power. My mentor Dom Tamboriello first presented it to me on a little yellow sticky note that read “should = ‘sh’ame + c’ould’”. It turns an opportunity for personal choice and potential success into a likelihood of failure by comparing all to an externally crafted ideal.
“Makes me” gives up personal power and places the blame for ones experience solely on another or external circumstances. It is rarely true.
“We” is wrapping arms, of what one is speaking, around a collective group. It is a useful word, but is often used to fold folks into a collective idea or experience to which they may not resonate. Consider being careful to use it only when technically true or with the consent of all involved. “We paleontologists” said in a juried paleontologist convention is probably technically true, or the party crashers probably won’t complain. “We all like to rock” said at same convention, not likely technically true, but at least those who get the joke aren’t likely to complain. “We men” stated at the same convention, perhaps largely male identified, that includes a few women, trans, and non-gender identified folks becomes disrespect that may be harmful. “We white folks” or “we black folks” spoken among folks who choose not to participate in this artificial polarization seems similar. Saying “We don’t care enough about teachers” is a blanket statement that is likely not true for all and counterproductive if one is trying to lobby for increased teacher pay. It is a common mode of speaking among motivational or spiritual teachers to say “we all do these things” that I’m about to tell you how to change. I want to learn from the folks who’ve already made said changes, or at least folks who believe in the possibility that others around them have made said changes.
“You” is a similar way of spreading culture and disempowerment. I hesitate a little on this one. It is one of the most potent fnords out there. Once you hear it, you will likely not be able to unhear it. Many people are prone to saying “you” when speaking personal experience. They are not only disrespecting themselves by not owning their own experience. They are also disrespecting the other by suggesting a commonality of experience. This can be hard to note when one is trying to make inroads and there is true empathy and commonality of experience. It can become comedic when one is describing a work or trip experience that the listener has no real context for. I find it begins to feel sticky and icky when one is describing a personal situation or interaction that doesn’t align with how I would choose to be. “You know, when you spank your kids to teach them a lesson.”