AFTER Working with Abe the used-car salesman that afternoon, we both found ourselves using the R-word:
Just as Abe told me at the outset that his primary professional value was honesty, in the end, he summarized his goal as a salesman this way: “I need to gain a buyer’s respect.”
Why didn’t Abe challenge my prejudices against driving a Lincoln or Cadillac as we began to stroll through his rows of used cars? “You have your reasons and I respect that,” he told me.
As we finalized the deal, I told him something similar: “Thank you, Abe, for being honest and respectful of me.”
Does that word “respect” sound hollow or superficial to you? Are you suspicious of anyone who talks to you about “respect”?
Perhaps so. The value of respect has been twisted in so many different directions—from politics to popular culture—that perhaps the term is nearly worthless now. The leading presidential candidate in Republican polling is a man who boasts about his lack of respect for others.
Here are three questions guaranteed to start a spirited discussion with friends: Would you like to see a revived culture of respect today? Do we even share that value anymore? And, if we do, is it possible to rebuild a widely shared sense of respect among the people we encounter each day—like I encountered Abe?
Before you dismiss the idea, consider that “respect” was among the most frequently used words when the late Pope John Paul II spoke or wrote in English. Most American Catholics know the phrase “respect life” and the two words often are reduced to an anti-abortion bumper sticker.
But, if you read John Paul’s longer teaching documents, you will discover the great breadth of meaning he intended that phrase to convey. John Paul wasn’t talking just about the inception of life; he was talking about respect for the unique value of each man, woman and child living on the planet. The late pope wrote some withering critiques of both big business and big government that demean the precious nature of human life—each person’s life—through violations of basic human rights. John Paul saw a tragic lack of respect for life in everything from unrestrained capitalism to the death penalty, from a lack of health care to a lack of living wages.
Respect—it’s still a potent value.
Here’s my perspective: I think the world is held together by the mass of honest folk who do their daily tasks, tend their own spot in the world, and have faith that at last the Right will come fully into its own. And, I respect that.
Is that an unrealistic view of the world? Is it possible to achieve true respect between two strangers who meet for just a couple of hours in a realm as unlikely as a used-car lot?
The late Fred Rogers thought it was possible. In fact, he described the awe we can experience at such a connection between two lives:
It’s very dramatic when two people come together to work something out. It’s easy to take a gun and annihilate your opposition, but what is really exciting to me is to see people with differing views come together and finally respect each other.
Ultimately, that’s what I shared with Abe—there’s nothing more potentially contentious as buying a used car. But, in this case—I drove away with a smile and a nod toward Abe.
Mr. Rogers was right: It was exciting.
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Benjamin Pratt is the author of three books published by ReadTheSpirit Books. His occasional columns appear in ReadTheSpirit online magazine, the website of the Day1 radio network and in other online clergy networks as well.
- Depth of a Salesman, part 1: ‘Attention must be paid’
- Depth of a Salesman, 2: In which I confess that I’m prejudiced
- Depth of a Salesman 3: I didn’t haggle. Are you surprised?
- Depth of a Salesman 4: What we need, not what we want
- Depth of a Salesman 5: Reclaiming the R-word; Mister Rogers was right