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Posted March 20, 2005

A Reflection on the Nobility of Respect

Taken from The Promise of Virtue
This book is already cited elsewhere on our web page

We have focused on the need to develop self-respect and how accomplishing this creates the foundation from which all other respect flows. We need now to turn to the effect respect has on others and how it ennobles those who receive it as well as those who give. An incident that happened during one of my morning strolls around the Capitol in Washington, D.C., will help us to better understand this spiritual phenomenon of respect and what I call the “principle of reciprocal ennoblement.”

I noticed a well-dressed man stop to talk with a street person who was sitting on the rim of the fountain just across the street from the Capitol. Next to him in a grocery cart were all his possessions.

Instead of brusquely greeting him and moving on quickly, as most people tend to do to avoid being asked for money, this well-dressed man lingered. With utmost delicacy and politeness, he asked the street person about his past life. The dignity with which he did this took the conversation far beyond small talk or inquisitiveness. It lent a profound meaningfulness to it that respected the boundaries of the street person.

As I listened at a distance, the street person painfully told his story. Ironically, when he finished, he never once asked for anything. He just thanked the well-dressed man for listening and let it go at that.

I pondered this scene on my way back to the parish and could not but think that the time and respect given that homeless person had to be more rewarding than any amount of money he would have received. Oh sure, he would have welcomed a handout, but there was an awesomeness about that encounter that took it beyond begging and handouts. What I experienced was one human being enabling another to stand erect, free, and to be the person he was. This is rare among friends, let alone in encounters of strangers with such different lifestyles.

The well-dressed man had to be rewarded as well, for the exercise of goodness always brings us closer to our true selves, to the people we really are meant to be.

I vowed after experiencing that inspiring incident to jump on the next opportunity I had to replicate what I saw. I did not wait long.

The very next morning a group of laborers began repairing the parking lot. After Mass, I spotted the foreman and greeted him with “Buenos dias.” I had done this several times before but never stopped to converse. This time I did and learned that he came from Central America. What followed in our conversation was awesome.

His father, mayor of his hometown, had been killed for defending the poor. This man fled the country and came to the United States where he learned English and worked nights and days to build up a business. He now owned a large business of his own.

He told me that his sister had remained in Central America and was teaching poor children in the jungles.

“I am planning to see her soon,” he said, “I want to build her a small two-room school. It is my way of thanking God for everything he has done for me.”

As I left him, I too thanked God for having been touched by a person I had frequently seen but to whom I had given only a passing glance. Because of that encounter, I learned that he possessed inspiring convictions — an important reminder from him of what my own true convictions must be.

Looking closer at this experience, we see that respect can take many forms, one of them being giving time to another, which allows a person to feel appreciated and worthwhile. This is ennoblement at its best an is one of respect’s most beautiful sides.

Another beautiful side of respect is that in ennobling another, we are ennobled. When we allow another human being to stand erect and be himself or herself, this respect unleashes a goodness that flows back to us. Often it also enables us to enter into a I-thou relationship, which is one of the most noble encounters we can enjoy in life.

This principle of reciprocal ennoblement is sometimes forgotten. Usually respect is envisioned as a one-way street — either we give it or it is given to us. But there is more to respect than this. When it is given, that which is given frequently comes back to us in a way that makes us better people for having given it.