The ancient esteemed Greek philosopher, Aristotle, offered the following hypohora: “What is the essence of life? To serve others and do good.” Some two thousand years later, an equally sage and astute person – my Mom – impressed upon me a similar mandate: “Always treat every person with respect, don’t look down on anyone and help those who need it.”
Admittedly, while not as prosaic nor rhetorical as Aristotle’s oration, Jeanette Reynolds’s edict was no less profound. I have carried her words with me my entire life. They have served me well both personally and in my professional endeavors. The gift she bestowed on me during those early formative years of my life served as one of the initial building blocks, laying the foundation for the adult I became.
To my Mom’s proclamation, I added another guiding principle best stated by 19th Century American reformer, Henry Ward Beecher, who wrote “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” A lifetime of adhering to this passage has also proved beneficial to me and those whose paths I have crossed.
Gazing back across the decades of my existence while peering thru the aperture of experience and toil, I have come to realize that any success I have achieved in life has an unmistakable and very real correlation to how I have treated others. Rabbi Harold Kushner noted that “Being kind to others is a way of being kind to one’s self” and the veracity of this claim is an undeniable truism when I gaze into my life’s mirror. I have been a benefactor of my own kindness.
While some overt returns on my investment in kindness have been bestowed upon me, by far, the most gratifying rewards have been those I have realized internally; a sense of fulfillment not replicated by any other act or purpose. To be sure, I treat others with respect and dignity – regardless of race, creed and any other discriminator or lot in life – because it is the right thing to do but there is no denying I gain in return more than I give.
Being nice to others makes me feel better about myself, spiritually and emotionally and as such, physically. That I may be a better person is a matter of opinion but I certainly feel like a better human. In this regard, I fully agree with French moralist, Joseph Joubert, who noted, “Politeness is the flower of humanity.”
Treating everyone with a basic level of dignity also serves as a daily reminder to me to remain humble. For me it is the ultimate ego checker, steadfast as it is effective, serving as a constant and potent signifier to me throughout the years not to take myself too seriously. Nineteenth Century Swiss philosopher, Henri Frédéric Amiel, observed “There is no respect for others without humility in one’s self.” I could not accede more to this conviction.
A rather humbling experience happened to me recently – on my 58th birthday in fact – that reminded me of this; a gift bestowed upon me by the unlikeliest of people. On a work assignment, I had been stuck in a hotel for a few weeks. During this time I crossed paths with the maid, Rocío, on several occasions. Each time I greeted her with a smile and took a few minutes to chat. Though having to work thru a significant language barrier – Spanish being her first language and English, sadly, being my only – I was nonetheless able to find out much about her life.
Rocío shared with me she immigrated to the US from her native Colombia 16 years ago, alone with a small son and basically very little else. Working at same DC hotel since then, she was able to cobble out a modest life, put her son thru college and see him off to grad school.
In her broken English, Rocío was able to convey to me how grateful she and her son were for the opportunities the US provided her. I told her of my admiration of immigrants and applauded her hard work and determination. At one point, the phrase “Thank you for living the American Dream” left my lips.
Back to my birthday, it fell on a Sunday and as such, I was in my room alone working when my Colombian friend came in to clean. During her time in my room, my parents called to wish me a “happy birthday”; a fact Rocío picked up on. Later that afternoon, I responded to a knock on my door to find her standing there clutching a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and a small Hostess cake (both likely purchased from the hotel commissary at an exorbitant cost no doubt.) Presenting me both, Rocío smiled and said Feliz Cumpleaños!
This beautiful gesture from a beautiful person underscored perfectly the importance of my Mom’s guidance to me so long ago. Some 2,500 years ago, Greek fabulist, Aesop, wrote “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” These words are profoundly true.
I leave you with one last quote – because y’all know I love quotes! – I think fully captures the essence of what I tried to convey in the previous 850 words. The 18th Century British sculptor, John Bacon, opined “It comes down to the way you treat people. When you treat people with dignity and respect all the time, you can work through anything.” Amen to that.
I borrowed the title to this web blog entry from the 1965 Otis Reading song, “Respect.” A great song made famous by Aretha Franklin.