At age 83 some might refer to me as “an older gentleman,” a generous euphemism for “an old man.” The expression seems to convey respect. As if by merely surviving seventy years plus I earned respect. Growing old makes me no more a candidate for respect than being tall, short, female, male or myriad human appearances and circumstance. Hanging on into your seventies is luck, making not too many dumb choices, and genes.
Scoundrels, tramps, thieves, crooks, liars, rapists and murderers are proportionally represented among octogenarians as the general population. If a John Dillinger, Al Capone, the Zodiak Killer, Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway or Jefferey Dahmer survived past seventy would they have earned respect? How about Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler?
For some, respect seems natural. Not by dint of age or physical characteristic, but for helping to make this struggle, this human life, a little easier. Peacemakers, Healers, Jesus Christ, The Buddha, great scientist and artists, Socrates, Aristotle, Mohandas Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. deserve respect.
But how about the rest of us? How about a toddler in a swing, a teen hunkered over a laptop, a high school dropout, a high school graduate, a retiree making ends meet flipping burgers as Mickey D’s, twenty-somethings starting a family, working moms, working dads, sanitation truck drivers, eighteen-wheel drivers, farmers, migrant workers, the homeless and imprisoned? Every human deserves no less respect than an older gentleman.
Respect aside, youngsters seeing “an older gentleman” or matron may feel a not-exactly-conscious curiosity. “What’s it like? How does it feel? You look old. Do I want to go there?” As memory serves, Dr. Murray Banks answers, “You may say, ‘I don’t want to live past ninety.’ You’ll say it ‘til you’re eighty-nine.”
Teaching respect has evolved. Until five or so decades back, kids were explicitly taught respect. “Do as you’re told.” “Don’t talk back.” “Don’t sass.” Curious words “sass,” never hear it today. Cloaked under contemporary culture and adolescence independence, most of today’s kids pick up respect. It has to be adult modeling. We’re doing something right. Only a small subset of today’s youngsters are blatantly disrespectful; they were there all along.
In my view, as respect’s spotlight dimed, for some dis-respect “diss”ing lit up. Curiously, gangs and individuals with little are no respect for others take affront at being “dissed.” It goes much further. Nations dissing others is war. If nations learned respect, if they stopped dissing, we would have a far more happy, peaceful world.
Like many words I toss out without knowing what I’m talking about, “respect” comes down to definition, to etymology: “re-back” plus “specere–to look at,” to look back, to see again! To re-spect people, I must see them again! Amid the incomprehensible complex mix of genes and environment, amid the physical and emotional suffering, I must continually remind myself, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Despite mindboggling complexity, the human equation has common denominators. In secret, we all know them. If I see through the straw person I crate to the wounded child inside, if I’m not fooled by your charades, your defenses, if I see that we are all wounded, yearning for kindness, for love, not to be hurt, this human existence, this life, would be better indeed.
Older gentlemen deserve respect. So do you. So do we all.