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Life as Performance Art

     As you might have noticed I keep coming back to the theme of respect.  We give it and we earn it. It is a rapid exchange of an intangible element in our life, flowing back and forth faster that the weirdest possible form of crypto-currency.  It is exchanged even when we do not share the same meaning of the word. The other day someone stopped me on the street and wanted to know what he would get out of respect that would be of personal benefit.  My first thought was that we don’t try to get anything in return for giving and receiving respect; we do it because it is the right thing to do.  Then I realized there may be far more to it than that.
    What really happens when we give or earn respect? The product is dignity.  Dignity might even be the ultimate reward of respect.  It enhances an individual’s understanding of their self-worth and their place in the world.  Sometimes it enhances our life.
      Some sixty plus years ago, there was a tall, very elegantly dressed and dignified,  but really old man  (perhaps in his fifties), who would always make a point of greeting me at our church.  He was tall enough and I was small enough that he would drop down onto his knees to look me in the face and shake hands. A few minutes later and he was back up on his feet to move on.  A few years later he began to ask about how I was doing in school,  the Cub Scouts, or something else.  Those few minutes of attention made me feel very special and grown up. I think that would be true of any child.
      He was my friend, and that is all that mattered. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he was someone truly important to the world.  My parents explained that he had been part of the medical team who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering Cortisone.
     Dr. Polley and the others who worked for several years on this project had already earned the respect of the world.  Many patients with orthopedic problems remain grateful to those scientists to this day.  Just as importantly, he constantly earned the respect of his patients and people who knew him because of his bedside manner..   He was a man who consistently did the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do. He put others first, but certainly he did not need to enhance his reputation by getting down on his knees to greet a young boy.
      He did it because it was something he wanted to do,
     For an elementary school boy, to be asked by an adult who was not part of our family, to shake hands and be given the opportunity to tell him about my life was something very special. He bestowed more than respect. This time it was dignity.
    You and I sometimes talk about respecting the dignity of every human being. It is perhaps the one element in life that is more important than all others.  We might not be able to change another’s economic status, but we can treat others as if they are a full member in good standing in the human race. You and I cannot change our national origin, race, or many other things;  nor can we change others. But we can put out our hand, smile, and find points of commonality that add dignity to all people.
    A dozen years after Dr. Polley and I would greet each other on Sunday mornings, and he no longer had to get down on his knees to look me in the face, I graduated from high school.  He gave me a wonderful present that has been part of my life ever since. It was Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Inside the cover he wrote that he hoped I would try to read it once a year. I have tried to honor that request.
     The book was especially aimed at salespeople, either located in a store or on the road covering their territory,  but the message applies to all of us. To be sure, it is now a bit dated and even corny, but the themes are timeless. It covered many of the important parts of good human relationships. It was, and still is, incredibly basic.  Carnegie touches on things like using another person’s name, looking them in the eye when talking, shaking hands, and never judging  another person by their clothes or accent, or anything else. That extends to race, religion, philosophy, and education.
    You and I know there are a lot of divisions in this country. They are the very things I just mentioned, and a lot more. All too often we hear some very well-meaning individual or group say that we need to bridge some of those gaps. That is true, but if we keep focusing on the things that divide or even potentially divide us, that is all we will ever see. Worse, that is all we will accomplish, Carnegie, like so many others pointed out we need to find what we have in common. After that, we can build on it.  
     The way I see it, giving and receiving respect elevates the dignity of others.  When we choose to take part in that important work, we make it far easier for them to pass on the favor. Meanwhile, they may not think it through, but it changes their thought processes. Instead of believing they are ‘just ordinary’ or worse, not worth very much to the rest of the world, they understand at least one other person believes they are of value. They feel, if only for a short time, that they are someone special who is worthy of notice. They move from feeling like an outsider to being on the inside.
    Here is a simple illustration.  We have all pulled into a store or mall parking lot and seen carts strewn about. Sometimes we see someone unload their cart, store their purchased, and drive off, leaving the cart where they parked.  You and I probably don’t think very highly of individuals like that. We might even growl under our breath, wondering what’s wrong that lazy so and so.
    I have yet to see someone successful in life, with a healthy dose of dignity,  just leave their cart for someone else to put away. Nor do we see someone with dignity toss their trash out the window of their vehicle. They know someone else would have to come along behind them to clean up their mess. Nor will they use a racial or gender slur.  Nor a lot of other similar things most of us instinctively know to be wrong.
    Trust me, when we feel empowered by self-respect and dignity, we don’t do those things like littering.  In a week weeks we will start seeing small groups of volunteers, walking along their two mile stretch of our highways, picking up the litter left behind by others. Thank you, to those of you who do it, but wouldn’t it be better if there wasn’t that trash left behind in the first place?
    If we want the world a better and cleaner place, a good starting place is giving respect that leads to dignity.  

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