When I was asked to write a piece about respect, Aretha Franklin’s soulful voice sang in my head for the rest of the day, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” That classic hit from the soundtrack of my youth seemed to say it all: “Give me some respect.” Everybody wants respect. It’s a basic human need. Not as important as food and shelter, but at least as important as money. Respect is a type of social currency. It is earned, paid, won, and lost. The amount of respect accumulated determines the status of respectability. Some people go to great lengths to try to obtain respect. Some will never have any self-respect of their own.
As I picked up napkins from the floor and brought back dishes and glasses that were left from breakfast, it struck me that while Aretha was singing about respect, people were marching in the streets, facing fire hoses and police dogs to earn the basic respect of civil rights. At that time the U.S. was also bogged down in a war in Vietnam because nobody could figure out how to stop it without a loss of respect. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” a powerful message and a powerful force.
While I moved tables and chairs to set up for the next day’s buffet, I pondered the question, what is this respect anyway? I also noticed that every table and a large percentage of the chairs had gum stuck to the bottom of them. The August before the Dining Hall fire, I scraped enough gum off the furniture to fill two large cans. I spoke about this at a lunchtime announcement. A year and a half ago, all of the dining hall furniture was refinished, but I digressed, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”
Respect starts with an awareness of oneself and society. You realize that there is a complex of laws, codes, and customs that help define people’s rights, freedoms, and responsibilities within that society. By adhering to these guidelines, we pay our respect. By being members of a society we earn the respect of human rights. Through self-awareness and acknowledgement of one’s abilities, one gains self-respect. To those who excel, we bestow honor and esteem.
Awareness leads to consideration of others’ rights, beliefs, and customs. It is a consideration that all actions have a ripple effect.
As I cleared a full plate of food that someone took from the buffet line and returned untouched, the saxophone riff from “RESPECT” played in my head. I struggled for a way to wrap this up, when the lyrics from another song by the Beatles hit me: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Respect is a lot like that. The more you pay, the more you earn.