I read it somewhere that ‘respect’ is a shirt that others put on your back. It is not something you chase, or something that you bag. It is something that you may unexpectedly discover on your person as you live your life day in and day out. It is something that people give you, not something you take from them.
But this also means another thing. This means that you are not the master of the respect you might command. People brought it to you. People might, one day, strip it away.
I have been thinking about respect. I have been thinking about what it means, how much it matters, in what ways it ties in with my idea of self, and my craving for validation from others. The ways in which respect goes into the cement of my identity. The ways in which it adds, or detracts, from my self-worth. The ways in which I have great respect for some people, and the ways in which some people – supposedly – respect me.
I stare into time as I read Henry Miller talking:
Parents are always demanding the child’s respect and obedience. They demand it, but they do not know how to command it. How can one obey and respect these crippled slaves who return from work each evening frustrated, defeated, ashamed of themselves? No wonder they reach for the bottle or sit like mutes before the television screen.
“Je sais l’avenair par coeur,” wrote Paul Valéry.
The child too knows the future by heart. He knows the poor wretches who daily commit every sin in the calendar – in his name. Soon he will be doing likewise. Like father, like son. Soit. Only tomorrow will be even more like yesterday.
I remember the people who were around me as I grew up, like parents are wont to be around children. Only I did not grow up at home. I spent the more significant part of my childhood in a hostel, at a residential school in the district of Purulia. The people that I had around me as I grew up were my schoolmates, and my teachers.
It doesn’t work quite the same way when you grow up in a hostel. Teachers are different than parents. For one thing, they are more distant – we never saw our teachers as they were inside the walls of their homes. They were human, but their human frailties could be hidden from us. They could protect us from those parts of themselves that they did not want us to learn from.
I don’t find this hypocritical. I find this human. Sometimes, I even find this heroic.
I was thinking about respect. Maybe I will come back to my teachers sometime else, write some of the things I remember for others to read. Those stories tie into this journey, my exploration of respect, its unexpected truths and many lies. But let me bypass them now.
Respect is not just something that’s yours to have. It is also something that’s yours to give. A person who cannot give respect usually has a hard time getting it from others. Yes, people may fear you, they may obey you, they may bow to you and always aim to comply. But those things are not the same as respect.
Respect starts with recognizing the fact that everything – everything – has its own value. There is nothing that is without value, without worth. The cheapest, most unloved, most unintelligent things – they too have some intrinsic worth, and recognizing this, appreciating this fact that nothing is zero – that is the first step to respect.
Whatever something might be, however little its worth might be in your book, – it is not zero. Don’t treat it like zero. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and render unto every insignificant thing the little esteem it deserves.
Once you start looking at the world this way, things get a lot easier. Because then pretty soon you graduate to the level where you no longer operate like a blind pilot in a storm, tumbling through life without purpose. You have recognized the world around you, and you have assigned a definite value to all things in it. Now you will navigate it as suits your purpose. You will stay close to the things you have tagged as the most valuable, and steer clear of the things you have deemed less important. You will be mapping your path with a clear sense of why. You will know why to respect Thing A more than Thing B, because you have tagged both with values that you can compare.
When you do this, you start building your own identity. People can be defined by the things they hold important. As you determine which things you hold important, you slowly construct who you are – to yourself, and to the world. You start finding answers to questions you ask yourself about your life choices. You start finding answers to questions people ask you over lunch. And you choose, based on how valuable those people are to you and in what way, whether to disclose those answers to them truthfully.
You also assign value to the closest thing you have in the world – Yourself.
You would not be doing it randomly, or unsystematically. I remember telling a person I used to know that if I had to choose between saving my life and hers, I’d choose hers, not because I had a great deal of love or affection for her, but because she was a lot more capable of doing good to the world than I was. It was merely a matter of efficiency.
You would know, with clarity, what your worth is in this world you inhabit. So, once you know it, you can go to work on yourself and develop, so that your value goes up.
You would know which things command respect, and you would strive to make those things a part of yourself. You would recognize those things in others, and you would accord them the respect they deserve. Respect, for you, wouldn’t be some kind of an mental glitter to decorate people. It would have meaning. It would have its own gravity.
(Would probably be contd.)