She stood in the corner of the room, surrounded by boys whose interrogating tone left her bewildered and unsure how to respond.
Did they really want to know what her religion was about or were they just taunting?
Having grown up in a minority religion, she was no stranger to explaining herself, or to handling questions about a belief-system handed down by her parents. It was difficult for a child to try to explain perspectives that were different to those around her.
It was made even more difficult by the fact that the questions often led to teasing and bullying. She was different, not only because of her religion, and it left her outside the group and vulnerable to attack. Yet, she was raised to be respectful of differences and understanding of others and didn’t have the tools to counter-attack.
Was she really such a threat to the group-consciousness of her peers, with her differing views on god, gender and social norms? Or was it her sunny nature and intelligence that threatened them more?
Listening to her story, I suspect it was a mixture of the two.
That child has long since grown up and has come to her own understandings, finally finding her voice. As a woman, her choices and views in life have continued to leave her in a similar place of having to field sarcastic questions and dismissive comments whenever she bares her soul. But she is learning to respond with more grace and ability than she did as a girl. And she is learning to ask for the one thing she wishes she had been able to request as a child—respect.
As a writer, I understand that this is something many of us who write often silently wish for. Respect does not ask that you agree with what you hear or read—it just asks that you listen openly and accept it is a reality for another person. It asks that you have some empathy for your fellow human being regardless of your own belief system.
I don’t believe we are here to be replicas of each other or models in some perfect system. I do believe we are here to express our individual uniqueness, although sometimes it seems to be easier to try to fit in with commonly accepted norms (whether that be within a spiritual community or broader society) than to risk being shot down for exposing our deeper selves.
I am a white, English-speaking, well-educated woman, and have no doubt that my perspective in life is colored by those facts.
But I am also an Irish-speaking, shamanic therapist and writer, with no religious affiliation but with deeply-held spiritual views on life. Put all of those together and you get quite an eclectic mix which has left me with a sensitivity towards the fact that others may have perspectives that are different to my own.
I have a love of diversity and a respect for it.
So, what does it take to encourage more of this respect for diversity in the world? How do we foster a world which is not only tolerant but respectful of divergent views? And how do we live in it peacefully?
On a subject that has repercussions from the Middle East to North Korea and back to our own doorsteps, I wouldn’t be so naive as to assume I could tackle it meaningfully in a short article like this. But what I can do is offer some thoughts on how it starts with us, day to day, in our own lives.
It is so easy, when we are rushed, stressed or hurt to lose our respect—ignoring our body’s quiet voice, cutting off a lover mid-sentence, or dismissing a newspaper article with one quick judgment.
Respect has to start with our own individual practice, and I’m as guilty as the next person of letting it slip when the pressure is on.
1. Self-respect has to be a starting place, but what does that really mean?
For me, it means practicing ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, towards ourselves—mentally, emotionally and physically. It means listening to what’s going on inside, being respectful of our body’s need for nutrition, rest, exercise and love, without judgment or criticism.
If we are respectful towards our physical selves, we are accepting of who and how we are, of our own needs, body shapes and limitations, without critically comparing ourselves to others or to some ideal.
We respect ourselves by accepting our sorrow and our joy, our love and our anger. If change is needed in how we think, feel or act, then it comes from a place of respecting who we are and who we have been, and for what might be in our best interests. Practicing self-respect means giving ourselves a fair hearing, listening as best we can to whatever our bodies or emotions are trying to tell us, without judgment, and then taking compassionate action if necessary.
When we act respectfully towards ourselves, it is much easier for us to extend the same courtesy towards others.
2. Respecting loved ones.
Sometimes this can be one of the hardest areas to deal with. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ has some truth to it, and it is easy for respect to slip away when it comes to those closest to us.
We start to pick away at the faults that we see in lovers and family, forgetting that they are, like us, human beings on their own unique journey through life and we can never, completely, understand how that journey is for them no matter how well we know them.
This is particularly the case with children, who may not have the verbal skills to clearly articulate their emotions and views. Respecting them means, among other things, taking the time to see things as they might and to allow them the space they need to be themselves and find their own attitudes to the world. This doesn’t mean tolerating harmful behaviour—but our response to another’s behavior is always more constructive when it is taken from a place of respecting their perspective.
Our home life can be the perfect practice ground for the qualities we’d like to see echoed in the wider world.
3. Walking the mile in another’s shoes.
Taking the deliberate choice occasionally to step into a view that we find hard to respect, and trying on another’s journey for size, can help keep us mentally and emotionally open to life and respectful of others. It can even become another tool in the self-awareness toolbox.
We read an article in a magazine, or hear someone on the television, and it makes our blood boil. Instead of shutting down and closing the other out, try stepping into their shoes for a moment or two to feel how life may be like for them.
You may not agree with the conclusions they’ve come to or the attitudes they express, but having a sense of how they have reached them helps to bring more respect and compassion into the world.
These seem such simple steps to take in fostering respect, and yet our fast-paced, mass-market world undermines our efforts in each of these areas by demanding that we over-ride our bodies’ natural signals, label and box friends and relatives for ease of handling, and make snap judgments about people and situations.
Fostering respect demands that we slow down and take our time.
Is that something we are ready and willing to do?
(Originally published on Elephant Journal)