I am a big fan of Aretha Franklin’s iconic song “Respect.” Anytime I hear it, I start dancing like a crazy woman and lip sync along with the Queen of Soul as if, like her, I were a real bad*ss. That song is every woman’s anthem. And, like Aretha, respect has been very important to me.
In the last two years, I have had the privilege of participating in two restorative justice training sessions. One of the key practices of restorative justice is circle dialogue, in which each participant has a chance to respond to a question or reflection prompt. In one of these training workshops, we were asked to contribute a note card naming a value that was deeply important to us. The value that I chose to add to our circle was respect. Aretha’s dope rendition of the song aside, you see, for me, all other core values flow from respect. How can we be honest, kind, loyal, just, or compassionate if we do not have respect? Respect feels like the base of the pyramid to me.
But recently, I got to thinking that perhaps respect isn’t the value I should give the shout out to, for that very reason. Respect is implied. And we can easily stop at respect. Just because I respect you doesn’t mean I then must extend you any goodness or love. An act of love demands that I move beyond respect to something harder to extend, like generosity.
I refer not to financial generosity, though that is essential, but to having a generous spirit, which is more challenging. When someone tires me, annoys me, or infuriates me, I can still find it possible to respect them, but I don’t always do the work of being generous to them in that moment, of extending a kind word or a sympathetic ear or a moment of my time. I also need to develop a disciplined and generous heart to let go of an unkind word or act which wounds me. The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg received some excellent advice on this type of generosity on her wedding day. “In every good marriage,” Ginsburg’s mother-in-law said, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” Ginsberg goes on to write, “I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil, I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” Ginsberg’s practice of “deafness” is wise and generous.
In an era when we feel the chasm between “us” and “them” grow wider with each passing news cycle, maybe we can incorporate a little deafness to the noise of meanness around us, and extend ourselves with just a bit more generosity to those who stand on the other side of the chasm. Maybe, just maybe, we can begin to close the gap a few inches. And that might even give Aretha and Ruth something to sing about.