The Lie: "You Can't Respect Others If You Don't Respect Yourself"
Culture teaches us that: “You can’t respect others if you don’t respect yourself.”
There are many iterations of this lie. It all boils down to pride, thinking of oneself higher than you ought to. I became aware of this lie one night in Virginia Beach when my wife and I were casting our votes in a middle school gymnasium. A banner hung on the wall that read “Respect yourself. Respect your teachers. Respect others.” I looked at my wife and said “Well, they’ve got that backwards. You need to respect your teachers and others before respecting yourself.” A woman, who was dressed like an old schoolmarm, turned to me and recited the tired old bromide “You can’t respect others if you don’t respect yourself.”
One self-respect course begins with the encouragement “never settle for less than what you deserve. And you — we all — deserve the very best in life. You have this one life to live and you deserve to have the best things for you: the best people, the best career, the best feelings. Don’t settle.” But, who is the arbiter of what we deserve? If we all deserve the best, wouldn’t that cause conflicts between competing interests? In fact, it does cause conflicts.
About a week after my encounter in the gymnasium, I found out what “respect yourself” really means. I was on an active-duty for the Air Force, on a state-side deployment away from family, driving home from a long shift at work, looking forward to a nice meal. Traffic was heavy so I turned down a side street to avoid it. Walking in the middle of the street were a half-dozen teenagers. As I approached them in my SUV I anticipated they would hurry to one side or the other. Instead, a few of them looked at me and “respected themselves” by continuing to walk in the middle of the street. My trying to use the road to get home was imposing upon their “respect,” so they simply just ignored the nearly 2-ton SUV that could have turned them into grease spots on the asphalt. The conventional wisdom of this lie is that if you don’t have respect for yourself, then you won’t care if you behave in a disrespectful way that makes you appear to be a jerk and harms your self-esteem. If you have self-respect, you won’t demean or disappoint yourself by acting in a disrespectful manner toward others. The problem with the conventional wisdom is that it focuses on the self first. It worries about “my sense of self-esteem.” It emphasizes what makes me think highly of myself. If I don’t feel like I’m getting the respect I deserve, I will not give it to others.
The conventional wisdom attempts to manipulate a person’s behavior by appealing to a sense of pride in himself. “You’ll look foolish to others if you treat others without respect.” How effective do you think it is to appeal to a selfish person that he should respect others as a means for his own reputation? Poet Emily Dickinson famously wrote in a letter to a friend “The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care.” A selfish person is typically only thinking in the moment, and not about the future. He wants what he wants. He couldn’t care less about how he is perceived by others. He only cares about how he perceives himself. In that moment, he perceives himself as being deprived of something he wants.
What does God say about respecting yourself first? He said to prefer others first. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:9-10). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Respecting others starts with loving others more than ourselves. Loving others here is not with the attitude that “I will love him, but I don’t have to like him.” In Romans 12:9-10 Paul uses three different Greek words for love. In verse 9 he uses agape (άγάπή). “Let agape be genuine….” This kind of love is an abundant kind that abounds in affection and charity. Agape love is considered the highest, most complete form of love. Paul tells us that we are to have this kind of love that is authentic, and not hypocritical or superficial. We are not to simply prefer others because it makes us look good and improves our reputations. Our love for them is to be genuine.
The second word for love Paul uses in verse 10 is philostorgos (ϕιλόστοργος). “Be philostorgos one to another….” This love cherishes others as if they are kindred. It is a fondness as to a familiar natural relative. John Piper describes this love as “the comfortable at-homeness you feel with a favorite old sweater or a 13 year-old dog, or the chair you’ve sat in for decades, or a friend that you feel so easy with there’s not the slightest thought of self-consciousness about keeping the conversation going or worrying about times of silence.” Our actions toward someone should not be from mere tolerance or duty, but with a kind, warm affection.
Finally, Paul uses philadelphia (ϕιλαδελϕία). “Be philostorgos one to another with philadelphia….” This requires putting the needs of others first. The kind of love contemplated with philadelphia is that of fondness united by a special bond. The kind that develops from similar struggles, from bearing one another’s burdens. The fraternal love among a band of brothers. We are to love one another because we share a bond of salvation, and a fellowship of suffering.
Paul then proceeds to say “Outdo one another in showing honor.” What is “honor?” Paul used the Greek word time (τιμή) pronounced tee-may’. Time is a valuing of someone to the highest degree. It bestows a dignity on something considered precious. We certainly can render time on someone and not love him. However, Paul does not say “Either love one another, or show honor to them.” The requirement is for both. With honor must come love.
Respecting yourself in order to respect others does not contemplate Paul’s admonishment. What does this lie of the culture look like in practice? Respecting oneself plays out when drivers refuse to use turn signals or use the shoulder to pass, spitting out gum in the parking lot, throwing cigarette butts on the ground, not returning unwanted food items to their proper shelf in the grocery store. These little choices we make are not simply minor character flaws. These actions are manifestations of the evil that is in our hearts. Respecting myself means I should not have to be inconvenienced to use my turn signal since the other driver will simply speed up instead of let me in. Or I should not have to throw my gum in the trash can since the sucker who stepped in my gum should have looked where he was walking. Or I should not be burdened with putting my cigarette out in an ashtray since there is no ashtray near me and I don’t want a smoldering butt in my car. Or why should I have to walk all the way back to the freezer section to put the frozen peas back. No, inconveniencing myself is not respecting my wants.
Respecting myself first is about my needs, my wants, my rights first at the expense of others. That attitude is a recipe for the kind of world we have right now where everyone is going around respecting themselves first, and no one is giving respect because everyone is feeling disrespected. This cycle feeds on itself and perpetuates the evil. Perhaps it is time to believe the truth that we are to prefer others in love first. When everyone is respecting each other, we will all feel respected.