Many years ago, long before I met my wife, not long before my grandmother died, she asked me, “Luka, just tell me this, do you and your girlfriend respect each other?”
I bent the truth and replied, “Yes, of course we do.”
My grandmother nodded, “Good. Good. So long as there’s respect, everything turns out all right.”
She died before I even understood what she had meant. It took me years, but I’ve come to see respect as the basis of any relationship.
It’s an old truism that how a date treats the waiters at the restaurant is a guide to how they treat everybody in their lives.
My father died last summer and my mother became a widow. After the estate was settled she became the sole mistress of her house. However, her new status also threw the behaviour of other people into stern relief.
Three vignettes in the following months stood out for me.
A vague acquaintance, passing by saw my mother tending the plants in her yard. She walked into the yard and loudly proclaimed, “That tree’s too big! You have to cut it down.”
My mother responded, “Oh, I don’t think so, I quite like it.”
The vague acquaintance insisted, “No, it’s too big. You have to cut it down.”
This was not the vague acquaintance’s tree nor their yard nor something that affected them in any way. However, they felt the need to foist their unwanted opinion. I don’t know what went through their head, but it certainly wasn’t respect.
My mother didn’t cut down the tree, of course.
A family friend visited, and seeing our big black dog, he declared, “Well, now that your husband is dead, you’ll have to put that dog down.”
My mother responded, “Oh, I don’t think so, I’ll manage.”
The family friend insisted, “No, she’s too big. You can’t handle her. You have to put her down.”
This was not the family friend’s dog. However, they felt driven to demand my mother kill our dog. I don’t know what went through their head, but it certainly wasn’t respect.
My mother didn’t put the dog to sleep, of course. Our dog died some months later of unrelated causes, before I managed to see her again.
My brother visited our mother. In Slovenia it is traditional to take off your shoes when you visit somebody’s home. There’s a foyer, with space to put away your shoes, and slippers to wear in the house. He walked in with his muddy shoes and grunted a hello.
My mother said, “Could you take your shoes off, I just washed the floor.”
My brother ignored her and said, “Washing floors is a waste of time”
This was not his house nor his floor nor his effort spent keeping it neat and tidy. However, he felt it was too much effort to take off his shoes when my mother asked. I don’t know what went through his head, but it certainly wasn’t respect.
These episodes reinforced my conviction that respect is not a thing of thoughts and prayers, it is a pattern of attitudes and behaviour. Through our deeds we either respect people, including ourselves, or we do not.
The essence of respect isn’t acquiescence or sycophancy. No mere agreement. Respect means accepting people as subjects, not objects. As fellow-creatures endowed with emotion and desires, hurts and hopes.
And this brings me back to my late grandmother’s words, “So long as there’s respect, everything turns out all right.”
Many years ago I didn’t respect myself. I tried hard to be nice and good. I said “No” far too rarely and acted the doormat far too readily. This hurt both me and others.
Indeed, things didn’t turn out all right until I learned to respect myself and say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” when I didn’t want to say something.
In the end, being less nice, being less willing to say, “Yes,” was what also made it easy for me to say, “I might strongly dislike your preferred choice in colour and cuisine, but so long as it’s no skin off my nose, I’m very glad you know what you like and enjoy it fully.”
And that’s all there really is to it.
Don’t be a self-centred asshole. Don’t be an opinionated blowhard. Be respectful.
Because so long as there’s respect, everything turns out all right.