Category Archives: Essays

Is Respect Earned?

Our language carries many examples of respect as a transaction.

“You have to give respect to get respect”

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We phrase it like  a transaction: Respect must be paid. Respect is due. Respect is earned.

And when you have the act of respect as a transaction, then the attitudes of commerce and entitlement follow. “I am owed respect.” “You don’t give me the respect I deserve.” “I gave you respect, now you have to respect me in return.”

I suppose this isn’t a problem if the two parties in the transaction have the same definition of respect. I think most of us though aren’t jumping into a gang or being hazed for pledge week. And maybe we think respect should be something greater than a token payment.

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So what does it really mean to pay respect?

Respect comes from the the Indo-European root spek-, which means to observe 1. You see it it words such as spectacles, suspect, and specimen.  Respect means to look back. In this context, to think about what you’ve seen.

When we ask others to respect us, we may mean to look back on what we’ve done as context for our present actions or attitudes. In this sense, we can respect others because we’ve taken a moment to look at what they’ve been through. We can respect their rights because we are aware of the trials it took to secure them.

We see this in the other meaning of the verb, to avoid interfering with, which is the result of  deference. We respect a person so we don’t intrude upon them, and the pause, if anything, becomes the payment of respect.

We reflect that in the noun form of the word:  regard,  honor, or the time we take to look back. So, we get a moment or a feeling of respect. Silent observation becomes the way we show respect. Therefore, the payment of respect, if anything, is the pause – the moment we stop and think about the other person before we act, speak, or judge. If you respect me, you stop before you violate my boundaries.

We owe that to everybody – our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, our selves. In that respect, it is not something to give or receive, but to demonstrate.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other’s opposite and complement.” —Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund

1 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. © 2011-2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company [back]

Image Credit: Brett Davies, Buddhist Respect (cropped from original)