"R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out what it means to me..."
I've always loved Aretha Franklin's song, although I never really thought about what respect meant. It just seemed to be a song about wanting a man to treat her better as a woman. As I've worked at self-examination as a big part of recovery, I've realized that I never really had much respect for myself and as a result, not much respect for anyone or anything else. As I began to live more closely aligned to who I believed I was created to be, I began to have some respect in general - for myself and for other people I admired.
When Nelson Mandela died recently I began reading more about him. Everything I knew about Nelson Mandela made me admire him. His courage, his intellect, his ability to forgive and his ability to endure 27 years in prison amazed me. And, of course, his huge role in changing South Africa's apartheid without a civil war. I learned that there was a lot to learn about respect from Mandela's way of living. What really attracted my attention was how he commanded respect from his captors while he was in prison.
Mandela believed that gaining respect was necessary if he was going to be able to help make a change in his country on behalf of himself and other black people. He spent much time contemplating how to do that since he was a black man in a country where white people had the power and treated all black people with contempt. For example, he just did not respond when his captors called him anything but Mr. Mandela. He put thought into the way he carried himself physically, how he showed emotion, and how he communicated with others. His purpose was to embody dignity and gain respect.
I am a child of the 40s and 50s where women were definitely second class citizens. The lack of respect (contempt) for women weighed on me too - of course, to a much lesser extent than Mandela experienced. It was so much a part of my life I didn't realize that I was carrying a weight until well into my adulthood.
When I became a foster parent to children with disabilities, I discovered to my horror, the extreme contempt many people had for them. I have been told many time that they would be better off dead. I realized that those people didn't see people with disabilities as fully human, just like they didn't see people of other races as fully human, and, the most frightening of all for me, women were seen as a little bit subhuman.
In the 40s and 50s, women were supposed to be wives and mothers only and were to work only if our families needed the money. We were subject to the will of our husbands in family decision making. In general, the jobs available to us were secretary, nurse, teacher, waitress, and prostitute - none of which paid enough for a woman to be independent. It wasn't possible for women to have credit independent of a man.
Just like snarky jokes about black people, there were lots of jokes about how women were not very bright; too emotional; bad drivers; not capable of being doctors, lawyers, supervisors, executives, business owners; how "being on the rag" made us irrational, etc. Keeping women "barefoot and pregnant" was a goal as well as a joke. Men were considered to be intellectually superior to women in every way. Men who had sex outside marriage and with more than one woman were just being men. Women who exhibited the same behavior were sluts.
I took that all in without being aware of it until in my early 20s when I read The Feminine Mystique. I woke up to what kind of culture I was living in and how it was affecting me. I was amazed. Ever since I've done my best to notice the disrespect for myself I picked up from the culture around me. Unfortunately, I didn't have a guide to help me develop self-respect and dignity. Mostly what I did in response was gripe and throw fits. Which didn't add a thing to my self-respect or dignity.
Unlike me, Mandela was raised in a family and community where he did not experience the contempt of whites so he didn't have to overcome any beliefs he might have otherwise acquired about the superiority of whites. His family was much respected in his tribe and therefore he himself was treated with respect. It was a great shock to him when he left home and experienced the world where he was treated like trash. I, on the other hand, knew from the time I knew I was a girl that I was considered second class and for a long time believed that it was true.
Of course, Mandela's efforts to be respected were less personal than strategic. His goal was freedom for black people in South Africa. I haven't had such big goals. I just wanted to be out of the emotional pain I was in when I came into recovery. I would never have guessed that respect was part of recovery. I respected my sponsor, though. I thought she knew everything (I still think she did). She was a wise person. She thought I was worth something. She said I was a sick person trying to get well, not a bad person trying to get good.
Bit by bit by doing what was suggested in my recovery program, I've gained respect for myself and then for others too. I've come to realize that all humans deserve respect. Even the ones that look like they are evil. All of us are God's creation. So even people that seem weak, bad or even evil have to have some worth or they wouldn't have arrived on the earth. I think it's up to us to decide to live in a way that we can respect ourselves and as part of that process try our best to understand others.
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