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Life as Performance Art

By G.C. Stoppel
Now and then a painting of three men at a writing table comes across my computer screen. They are working together on a document; more papers are beneath the table. They are John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Soon the presented their final document to the Continental Congress for debate, discussion, revision and at last approval. It must have been hard for the trio of writers to see some of their work rejected, along with other clauses and passages radically changed, but they understood it was a valuable part of the process, swallowed hard and respected it.
Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were not what we today call “good buds” who got along at work, then went off to the local for a few beers. Each had a strong personality that grated nerves of the other writers.
When frustrated Adams, already a prickly Puritan, became more so. He thought Franklin was a libertine who liked wine, women and song far too much. Franklin was brilliant but Adams thought he often just “played to the crowd” hoping to win accolades.
Jefferson was a fastidious southern gentleman, revolutionary and indeed a womanizer. Jefferson thought Franklin was pompous and would later refer to Adams as “His Rotundity” because of his growing waistline.
What bound them — and all the delegates — together was respect. Respect for the ideas and strengths of one another, the different traditions of the colonies and sections, and the concept of liberty as they worked to form the first republic since ancient Athens.
Nothing like the Declaration of Independence had been attempted since the nobility of England handed King John the Magna Carta in the 1200s and said, “Sign this or else! He signed it under duress, then, because he had no respect for his barons or the document, violated every promise he made.
Respect is the most important commodity in all human relations. It is an intangible idea and we don’t always agree as to its meaning or practice. Respect had one meaning for the Chicago Outfit under Al Capone, another to the authorities.
We have our own idea of what respect means and we don’t always agree.
Respect only means something when it is earned and given. We earn the respect of others when we are men or women of our word, our words and actions are integrated, we are tolerant, generous and compassionate.
We give respect to those who have power and authority, who strive to do the right moral thing and listen to us. Giving respect to others binds a civil society together.
It can be hard to find good examples of consistent respect, maybe because we are looking in the wrong places. That is especially and long has been true of politicians.
We see respect more often among athletes dedicated to the ethos of the game, not merely winning the top prize or after a huge salary and endorsements. Sammy Sosa’s corked bat might have helped him hit a lot of home runs, but it is a hollow victory. The same could be said of 7-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong who used chemical enhancements. 
Conversely, the great 1920s golf champion Bobby Jones had such respect for the game that he once called a penalty shot on himself. No one had seen him accidently touch his club against the ball, but he had and reported it. There was a man who could look himself in the mirror, and he set the standard for ethics in his sport.
If you want to see respect in action, visit your local fire department where respect flows from the chief down to the newest rookie on the squad and back upwards. On the wall of the meeting room there might be a poster that identifies some of the important applications of respect.
One of them is a reminder that the building is a fire house (emphasis on the word house). not a fire hall because it is a home shared by all its members. so clean up after yourself. Another is a reminder to address fellow members by their rank because they earned their titles.
We see it in the way members care for their equipment. Those trucks cost more than a Rolls Royce but are far more practical in an emergency. All their personal gear is paid for by taxpayers and crew members know it. They are the trustees of that equipment. That’s why when a truck comes back from a call, it is cleaned and polished, the equipment checked and put into place for the next time. They review the call, discussing what went well and what did not.
We may not think of it in the moment, but we are grateful for their respect if we call them for help. With any luck we won’t have to.
The world’s problems, my late uncle said, are greater than men and women in it. I think he was right. Most of those problems are created by lack of respect exchanged back and forth. If we up our game on respect, we can knock down many divisive problems. It starts with us.

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