I write this just days after the death of the infamous Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Hers was the voice of a generation — my generation — but she meant so much more. While it is difficult to imagine a world without her, I am grateful for her music, which will live on.
From my perspective, Aretha’s most influential song was “Respect,” written by Otis Redding. As Wesley Morris wrote in her obituary, she turned the song — and the concept — from a plea “into the most empowering popular recording ever made.” (“Aretha Franklin Had Power. Did We Truly Respect It?” New York Times, Page 1, August 17, 2018). What is it about respect that is so fundamental in our relations with others? What is the difference between dignity and respect?
I recently wrote about the book, Dignity, by Donna Hicks, PhD. Donna makes a point of distinguishing between respect, which must be earned, and dignity, which she defines as the inherent worth in every human being. This is an important distinction. “Human beings often behave in ways that are harmful to others, making it difficult to respect them for what they have done,” Donna says (p. 5). She continues, “I make the distinction between a person, who deserves respect, and a person’s actions, which may or may not deserve respect. … Their inherent value and worth need to be honored no matter what they do. But we don’t have to respect them. They have to earn respect through their behavior and their actions.” In other words, I may disagree with everything you think — I may not respect your actions or some of the things you do or say. I may question your integrity. But even if all of those things are true, I must acknowledge your worth as a human being.
I was mediating recently with a couple who were in a fundamental disagreement about whether to sell the house. The husband wanted them to sell the house and split the proceeds. The wife wasn’t ready to move. She had different reasons for not being able to move, and I could tell that he was getting exasperated. She was still getting used to the idea of divorce, and she needed time to make the transition. “You hate me,” the wife said to her husband. “I know you hate me.” I was surprised that she took it there — “I don’t,” the husband said quietly. That wasn’t the point. He was impatient, but he didn’t hate her. We kept talking, and the wife agreed to consider other living situations. The tension in the room abated quite a bit. After a while, as we were working on other issues, they started laughing together and making jokes. We got a lot done in the rest of the session.
The wife was really testing the husband when she said, “You hate me.” It was almost more of a question than a statement. His answer assured her that it wasn’t personal. The husband did not back down on his position, and neither did the wife. Did he respect her reasons for not being willing to move out of the house? Probably not. But despite their differences, they were able to acknowledge the humanity in the other person. They recognized the dignity in each other.
Perhaps, as Aretha sang, it is impossible to stay married without having mutual respect. But it is impossible to get amicably divorced without acknowledging each other’s dignity (just a little bit).