Coming to Terms: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
by Catherine Fournier
When I think of respect, I think of my father.
Dad was born in 1924 in a Glasgow slum, the youngest of a dock-worker's three sons. Young Alex and his friends played in the shipyard across the street, sliding down a shed roof and climbing on the trucks. Finally, the shipyard owner, annoyed with the swarms of boys on his property, electrified the shed roof and deliberately neglected to inform the neighborhood. One of my father's friends was electrocuted. No legal action was ever taken against the man, because he was within his 'rights' to protect his property.
My grandmother worked as a cleaning woman at a girl's school. In an effort to keep her boys healthy, she often brought home the cooking class leftovers, and traveled an hour out of her neighborhood to buy cheaper groceries. She died of tuberculosis when my father was 11 years old.
Dad joined the British Merchant Marines when he was 15, and spent the war years on the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. He saw shipmates killed when the WWI vintage guns issued to the Merchant ships exploded rather than fired.
The incidents, and many others, made an indelible impression on my father. He knew that these things happened because he, his playmates, his mother and his crewmates, were poor. They were treated without respect for their human dignity by those around them and the whole of society, because they were poor. My father, rather than denying respect to others as it had been denied him, was the most consistently respectful men I have ever known (not always polite, though). Not only that, he demanded it from all those around him. He knew that respect extended beyond words to actions, attitudes and beliefs.
After the war, he earned his Captain's papers. While crossing the Indian Ocean in the early 50's, his Japanese crew mutinied. Instead of protecting himself, he ran first to lock the radio operator and the gun cabinet key inside the radio room and then faced down the crew armed only with a handgun. He wanted to prevent the mutiny. If it had succeeded, the inevitable deaths and subsequent official notice of the mutiny would have brought a death sentence to all crew involved. You see, the mutiny was caused by his Second Mate who referred to the Japanese crew, one too many times, as 'slanty-eyed bastards.
I was his oldest child, the oldest of three daughters. I inherited his blue eyes, his stubbornness and, I hope, his sense of respect. I married at 18, and was pregnant and a convert to Catholicism 15 months later. My life flew in the face of everything he believed in: financial planning, higher education and careers, and logic. One night, he invited us out to dinner, and carefully explained, 'I don't agree with anything you're doing. I think you are foolhardy and naive. But I can see that you have thought it through carefully, believe that you are doing the right thing, and plan to stick to it. I respect that, and will honor your decisions. But if you do anything to endanger yourself, or your child, then you'll hear from me. Loud and clear.'
It seems to me that the word 'respect' is used in one of three ways, two of which are not truly respectful. Let's call them Cain, Pilate, and Mother Teresa.
The Cains among us say, "I respect your right to choose" (meaning: "I don't give a damn one way or the other - I'm not my brother's keeper.") This is the stance of the savage, who refuses to recognize others outside his tribe as being fully human, and eligible for the affection, approval, regard and honor given equals. It is a lie, and an empty gesture.
The Pilates say, choose "I respect your position and beliefs" (meaning: "Because it lets me off the hook.") This is the modern position, accepting all gods, all points of view. In order to appear open-minded and neutral, it denies the existence of good and evil. But denying them doesn't abolish them. Pilate is left condoning evil by his silence. A dangerously empty gesture.
Mother Teresa would and did say, "I respect you" (meaning: "I recognize and will act according to your human dignity, even if I disagree with you. If what you are doing is morally wrong, I will tell you, out of that respect.") This is the Christian position, recognizing the inestimable value of every individual human soul, and striving by whatever means to instruct and protect it. This is true respect.
Respect doesn't say, "I don't care what you do," it says "I must care." It doesn't excuse us from making judgments, it obliges us to judge and then speak. Respect doesn't deny us the opportunity to learn, to make mistakes, to follow our own course, it simply speaks the Truth with Love and allows us to listen.
Alexander Anderson Hope died on October 12, 1985, at the age of 62. R.I.P.
Return to Essays Page.