"The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things,
and the God of peace will be with you."
-Philippians 4:9

Monday, March 18, 2013

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

A recent statement made by a friend has come back to haunt me today. He said that "Teaching is more often something we are learning than something we have learned." The incredible thing is that, when parenting/teaching your kids, you often find that you are learning something that you didn't realize you didn't know.

Today was one of those days when I found out that something I had been taught - a simple, pithy, taken-for-granted philosophy that is frequently thrown about - was dead wrong. It is one of those many things you repeat without thinking too deeply about it. A belief that seeps into your subconscious without your notice simply because of its pervasiveness. I wonder how many more of those I will have to "teach" my way into seeing for what they are?

Today's lesson: "Respect is earned." 

How many times have we heard that? Said that? Crossed our arms defensively and spat it between clenched teeth as someone demanded respect from us that we didn't feel had earned it? Grudgingly put our hand to the plow and trudged on in an effort to make it true of ourselves when someone refused to pay us our due? Preached it to our children from whom we felt we had rightfully earned it by way of our position of authority and many sacrifices made for them? And at any point, did we hear...did I hear what I was saying? That respect is conditional. That I have an excuse to set some standard to which you must aspire before I grant that grace to you. That I have a right to demand it of you because I feel that I have achieved some standard that you should recognize. That my attitude and behavior toward you can acceptably be determined by your treatment of me.

Today, my kids got into a big, dramatic fight with some of the neighborhood kids. No, they weren't the first to hurl insults but they were pretty handy with the comebacks. And what did I teach them? Did I say it was okay for them to mouth off and be ugly because the other kids did it first? Of course not! I told them that each person is responsible for their own attitudes and actions. I said that just because someone else is disrespectful and ugly, it doesn't excuse disrespect in return. They heard that it is absolutely not okay to base their choices and actions and treatment of others on ill treatment toward themselves. I even pulled out the old "two wrongs don't make a right."

As I discussed it with them, I carefully unpacked the truth that even people you love - and who truly love you - will sometimes say and do things that hurt you, but that it is always your choice how to respond to them. Treating others with respect is a choice. I choose to respect you not because of you, but because of me. Because of the person I desire to be. Because I believe that it is right to respect. Because decency is good and acceptable; because rudeness and pettiness and payback are not. Because who I am should never depend on who you choose to be. And if that is not your choice, if you choose to disrespect me, I will continue to treat you with decency. Not in order to show you that I am the "bigger person," or to shame you into being kind, but because my choice to be a  respectful person does not allow me to place demands and expectations on you. It only allows me to accept you as you are.

After my conversation with the kids was over, apologies had been made and accepted, and the friends were all happily playing once more, what I had taught them kept rattling around in my brain. There was something there that needed fleshing out, some aspect that was eluding me.  That's when that little, seemingly insignificant phrase popped into my mind. "Respect is earned." It is commonly accepted wisdom and yet it flies in the face of all that I had just said to my kids. Oops. I have acted many times on that little gem and suddenly I realized that "respect is earned" is simply an excuse used for my own poor attitudes. I justify ugliness in my heart toward another person because, after all, they haven't earned my respect. I make demands of others - my children, in particular - because, after all, I have earned deference and obedience. That phrase is an expectation, an invitation to find fault and offense in others and thereby give myself a convenient pass for a rotten attitude. Conversely, it is an invitation to become puffed up and self-important as I catalogue the many things I have done to earn respect for myself from others...and a dangerous and destructive pitfall if I am not properly acknowledged as I suppose I should be. Neither side of that phrase leads to a good end.

True respect comes not from carefully dissecting who others are being at any given moment and choosing to grant them favor based on the results of that analysis. It is, rather, a gift given of self with no expectation of return whatsoever. It is a choice to view and act towards other human beings in a way that is benevolent simply because it is right. Respect is a combination of several character traits: love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control...fruits of the Spirit within us. These things are outgrowths of who we are, not conditional actions we take based on circumstances.

So the next time I'm tempted to demand that you respect me, or to gasp in astonishment that you of all people would expect me to respect you, I hope I'll stop and think about what I taught my kids today. I hope that I'll examine what my attitude of expectation or willful disdain says about ME rather than what it says about you.

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