I was recently confronted by a Gestalt colleague with this statement: Aren’t there many definitions of respect? The question stunned me. I realized I have a body sense of what is feels like to be respected and a body understanding of what another person means when they let me know they do not feel respected by me. These are times that I listen attentively to their truth of the experience and make what amends are possible.
Confronted by this idea that there are many ways to express respect, regardless of the experience of the other, I first look up the word in my Oxford Dictionary. There I find the definitions to be about admiration,
due regard, and avoid harming or interfering, but there is no part of the definition that relates to being guided by how the other feels or the essentially highly personal nature of individual standards of what is respectful behavior to me.
Our social/cultural forms of respect can blind us to the impact on the other. When I was growing up in New York City in the sixties, white people felt free to call their black friends soul brothers and “black meals” soul food, because they observed their friends using these terms with other people of colour. This was disrespectful as is any adoption of the familiar greetings that any group employs to express their unity in painful situations.
It is still true that the worst of these mistakes with one another come about unconsciously — when we are caught up in our mono-cultural or mono-racial indoctrination (our schooling that gives us the thought that a group of people behave similarly) – and hope to show the other we know something about them. The intention is to be liked or get close to the other. On the other hand, conscious disrespect can be so shocking, witness the current U.S. president, that it leaves us speechless, but in both cases it is the receiver that knows.
For the person who is disrespected, it is often too shameful to reply that they have been disrespected. We may never know the impact of our disrespect on the relationship with the one we disrespected, but it is often their inability to trust us or feel close to us again.
It is essential that we dialog. There is only one element missing in our ability to stay present and available when told we have shamed another and that is Humility. I think we confuse Humility with false humbleness, but it is far from that. It is the honest ability to turn our exposure into our growth. It is the opposite of being defensive.
Humility means we will make mistakes with one another and the response of the other must be our guide. We are over-identified with our ideal sense of self, brought up to fear that if we are less than ideal – exposing our very human judgments such as cruelty or selfishness – that we will be unloved, abandoned, vilified, or worse that we will discover we are indeed very bad people. We need to be open to the response of another if we are to become better humans.
In Gestalt we call this the ability to be open to novelty. The slightest shift in our senses is an indicator we are meeting someone new to us, and the response we must train is open curiosity. There are no cultural specifics and certainly no racial specifics – only the way each mysterious one of us responds to the situations we are born into, the supports we have received and the traumas we have experienced. Where there is trauma, where there are associations imprinted by fear, our responses are as close as our own skin – we barely notice their speed. When told by another that we have disrespected them, our defensiveness is the first barrier to potential growth. To open this barrier to one another’s truth is to claim the greater mystery called intimacy.