Respect & Disrespect

When I was four years old, I fell seriously ill and lost my eyesight for two years. After I recovered, I had a hard time keeping up with my age-mates. I was smaller and skinnier than many of my peers in my first-grade class. A group of girls made a sport out of ganging up on me and putting me down. I don’t recall their words, but I do remember how it felt to be disparaged. I also remember creeping into the back seat of our family’s station wagon after school one day, and crying. I didn’t understand. My mother comforted me, but her words did little to soothe the sting of scorn.

Years later, in recalling those days, I saw that my peers’ attacks on me were nothing compared to the attacks on those in our nation who had endured abuse for generations because they were people of color, or differently-abled, or had sexual orientations which were not considered usual; disrespect, bullying and worse continue to this very day. Yet, the lessons I learned from being bullied have stayed with me all these years. The slights I experienced then, though minor in comparison with what others have suffered, continue to link me to an ever-expanding community of those who are subjected to disparagement, and how in the right circumstances, compassion and resilience can emerge from the dark pool of disrespect.

I also realize that my deep concerns around disrespect spring not only from childhood episodes, but from my experiences inhabiting a woman’s body, working in academia, being on various boards of directors, and living in contemplative communities. It has also been fueled by witnessing the tyranny and meanness that is present in our society today. For me, it is especially disturbing to see others who are perceived as weaker or threatening being disparaged, socially marginalized, and even banned from our country. Aside from witnessing increasingly pervasive disrespect of others, I am concerned about what this kind of behavior is doing to the very fabric of our society, where incivility is becoming normalized and seems to be eroding our moral sensibilities.

On the other hand, I believe that there are few who are not aware of the importance of respect in our world today. It is the very tissue that makes for a healthy world. Anthropologist William Ury wrote in his book The Third Side:

“Human beings have a host of emotional needs – for love and recognition,

for belonging and identity, for purpose and meaning to lives.

If all these needs had to be subsumed in one word, it might be respect”.

Respect builds trust, healthy empathy, and moral character; it lends dignity to our human relationships and our relationship with our earth. It is the basis of love, justice, and is an expression of wisdom. It is also an expression of what it means to treat others with consideration and compassion, and is the path for transforming conflict into reconciliation. Without having ourselves firmly rooted in respect for all beings and ourselves, our world in imperiled.

This is why, for me, respect is an edge state. Standing on the high side of respect, we express the best in the human heart. Falling into disrespect, we engender vast harm.

In a neuroscience meeting in Dharamsala, I saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama stop in the middle of a heady science discourse, and reach out with one hand for a small piece of paper, while holding his other arm immobile. Without explaining what he was doing, he took the note card, and gently moved it against the flesh of his left forearm. He then handed the card to Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who was sitting next to him. As Tsoknyi Rinpoche was carefully taking the insect out of the room, His Holiness returned to his high-level discourse. I remember remarking to myself on how His Holiness seemed to respect even the smallest beings.

Respect for others, whether a tiny creature or a head of state, is a value that benefits not only those around us. Respect for others reflects respect for ourselves and respect for the moral principles that inform healthy societies. I was taught this as a young person. As an adult, Buddhism has been a powerful source of moral guidance and wisdom regarding issues related to how to treat others with respect and, as well, have respect for the principles that inform our basic decency. And yet, respect is an edge state. It is all too easy to slide off the precipice of unconditional regard for others into the experience of objectification and disparagement.

An example close to home for me personally is when respect gets exaggerated. This can cause us to idealize another to the point of making an object of them. I know this from being a teacher and the object of both good and bad projections over the years. One day, your student adores you. The next he or she hates you. Because of projections, or shifts in interpersonal dynamics, or our own biased judgments, or the normalization of contempt in our culture, inflated respect can turn quickly to scorn, where we degrade others and in turn degrade ourselves.

Or we can turn disdain toward others different from ourselves, a so-called “out-group.” I remember meeting the Black writer James Baldwin years ago. He said:

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted

in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

This is one of the edges that I feel we need to make very visible at this time, a place where we can stand high, and if we don’t, we fall low and take others with us. When we deny the basic humanity of others, this obliterates our own humanity and erodes the very ground of our society and the heart of our world. When we stand on the high edge of respect, we can free others and ourselves from inner and outer oppression, and nourish the roots of civility and sanity.

Whether we are the perpetrator or the target, disrespect is a toxic landscape to inhabit. We live in a world and in a time where there is more forgetting of who we really are and disregard for the preciousness of life. A hand automatically slaps the gnat or mosquito. We mindlessly look at the homeless person with disgust and disdain. We treat the dying person like an object, as our attention is co-opted by our digital device. We speak sharply to the child crying out for attention in the classroom, as the recess bell rings. We rudely push aside the complaint of the employee or constituent in the press of demands of our daily routine. Recognizing respect as an edge state can help us not get sucked into the swamp of incivility and contempt, bullying and abuse. It can keep us grounded in humility, integrity, morality, and care for others and self.

Our work of standing at the edge of respect is to look deeply, again and again, into things and beings as they are, with all their virtues and non-virtues, and hold them with both kindness and insight, even the worst of us or the worst in us. Harming others, including those who harm, is suffering too. In realizing respect as a core value, and in recognizing the fragile edge of respect, I believe that we can discover how respect is one of the great treasures of being human, ennobling us, and opening us to love that nourishes our basic humanity.

This excerpt is from Rev. Joan Jiko Halifax's upcoming book At the Edge, set for release in 2018.

- Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

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Sangha Without Borders is currently physically located in London, UK