Respect involves viewing others in a certain way. Origins of the word—re-specere—present the image of “looking back at” someone or something. So respect begins with an act of seeing, of looking, of viewing. Respect is a certain kind of vision. Thinking of respect as simply some idea or principle is not enough, for its seeds are planted in pre-conceptual, pre-rational soils of the psyche. Indeed, respect has to do with how we imagine or picture others. The seeds of respect take root in the imagination and then branch out towards our perceptions, visions, behaviours, interactions, concepts, and theories. If we picture others with positive images in the private depths of our minds, then we will tend to treat others respectfully. If we picture others with negative images, then we will tend to treat others disrespectfully.
Some see others as expendable or lesser than. Some see others as tools to be used in advancing their own projects and agendas. Some see others as audience members of the unfolding drama of their life. Some see others as problems to be solved. Some see others as strangers or annoying inconveniences to be avoided inasmuch as possible. Some see others as enemies to be defeated or done away with. Some see others as perpetrators deserving blame because they’ve learned to see themselves as victims. These are some disrespectful ways of viewing others. In contrast, some may see others as their brothers and sisters in the extended family of humanity. Some may see others as children of God possessing sacred value and inherent worth. Some may see others as spectacular mysteries who summon curiosity and fascination. These are some respectful ways of viewing others. Respect is really less of a concept and more of a vision. Respect is less a set of principles and more a way of seeing. It’s basic pictures and perceptions significantly shape the subsequent ethics, concepts, theories, and world-views we develop, not to mention the course of our interpersonal interactions and relationships.
Sometimes when we look at others in the haste of our hurried existence, what we see is mostly our preformed mental pictures of them and not them. We may think we see them, and we may think we interact with them, when we actually see and interact mostly with our own internalized images. One of the most disrespectful things we can think, in fact, is to assume we already know others. Not only does this attitude close us off to newness and possibility, it also reduces others to comprehensible objects of our mind. Such objectifying vision robs others of their true mystery, and, as a consequence, of their full humanity. One of the most respectful ways we can view another person is as an infinitely mysterious human being brimming with new and wonderful surprises for anyone who is willing to simply slow down enough to look and see. Seeing others with this form of respect is challenging, for it requires radical openness to learning and evolving as we allow the unfolding mysteries of others to constantly reshape our own views and out-looks.