Unprepared for Regret, Part III: Jill’s Last Day

Neither my wife nor I knew, four months ago today, that it would be the last day she would live.

By way of background, Jill was in decent physical shape — she was not ill or disabled or under long-term care for any protracted sickness — except for the effects of a leaky mitral valve in her heart. She had been diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse when she was twenty, and had been under the care of various cardiologists as we moved around as part of the Air Force. They had occasionally recommended having the valve replaced, but she had opted to monitor her condition in hopes that surgical techniques would improve over time. In fact, the latest surgical procedure would repair her valve rather than replacing it, and her cardiologist and the cardiac surgeon both agreed she was a good candidate. In the last few weeks before she died, Jill had had an echocardiogram and other tests to make sure that her heart was healthy enough to endure the surgery and recover from it. All indications were good.

On her last day — Friday, 18 October 2019 — Jill had her pre-surgery appointment. Her surgery was supposed to be on the following Wednesday (the 23rd), having been pushed back one day because of a higher priority case. Her pre-surgery workup had always been scheduled for the eighteenth.

I had gone with her to some of her prior appointments, like the echocardiogram, but she thought this one would be routine so instead I took care of our new puppy, Twix. She called me mid-morning, later sent me a text while she was waiting for her x-ray, and shortly thereafter sent, “I think I need to relax a little so I’m gonna take just a few minutes to walk at the art museum before heading home. I won’t be too long.”


(Jill’s last selfie, taken at the NC Art Museum on 18 October 2019.)

“If Anything Happens”

Jill got home about thirty minutes before we expected visitors from the church we were slated to join. She told me that she wished I had gone with her to the appointment because some of the things they said had frightened her — she might have said that they freaked her out, but I don’t remember her exact words.

Our visitors were two gentlemen who came as more or less a formality before the Elders voted to accept us officially as members. Most of the interview went unremarkably, as we explained how each of us had come to faith and the degrees to which we’d been involved in previous churches — until Jill said something that arrested my attention.

She was sitting to my right on the couch, looking at one of the visitors to her right, so I couldn’t see her face as she said, “The reason I want to do this now is so that if anything happens my obituary will say I was a member of the church. Because right now it wouldn’t say that, and that’s not me.”

I had never heard her say anything like that before. I was too stupefied to question it.

Our Last Meal Together

The visit ended, and she and I decided to go out for an early supper — not only because neither of us felt like cooking but to see how well the puppy would do in the crate for an hour or so. We ended up at an “Asian fusion” restaurant that we had frequented for years, partly because it was close to the pharmacy where she would pick up the prescription she’d been given.

During dinner, she told me a little more about her appointment: the instructions she’d gotten, the briefings she had had about what it would be like to come out of anesthesia and wake up in ICU, etc. She was very nervous about the prospect of waking up with a breathing tube in her throat, and being hooked up to so many machines, and said that all she could picture in her mind was her mom a couple of years ago when she came out of surgery.

As we talked, Jill thanked me for not questioning her about her obituary comment while the church men were in the house. She said the thought had just come to her that day. Her mood shifted from time to time, from serious when talking about the procedure or the recovery to playful when she asked me if I was eyeballing her dumplings that she was going to take home as leftovers.

After supper, we walked over to the pharmacy and picked up her prescription and a couple of other things. At one point, as we walked around one of the endcaps, she reached out and tapped a deck of cards, looked behind her at me, and said with a grin, “We’ll have to remember to take some cards to the hospital, so we can play something.”

I agreed that we would certainly do that.

Our Last Walk in the Park

We went home, got the dog out of the crate and put him in the car, and drove over to Bond Park — one of our favorite places in the Town of Cary. We discussed briefly whether we would take the pup with us to breakfast the next day (we almost always went out for breakfast together on Saturdays) or try leaving him in the crate again.

Once we got to the park, we walked a path through the woods from the Boathouse, up past one of the shelters and around to the Community Center. We passed a few pieces of exercise equipment, and at one point came upon a balancing platform: a round disk held up by a sturdy spring. I held her hand as she stepped up on it, and she balanced there for a brief moment and then hopped off, laughing. Then, just to show off, I stepped up without reaching out for her. She chided me for that, but we laughed together as I struggled to step up and then step off without hurting myself.

From the Community Center, we walked parallel to the big field by the levee and then down toward the baseball fields. We stopped at one and watched part of an inning of a youth league game, and Jill wondered when our friend’s son’s next game would be, for us to go to it.

As we walked on, twilight was fading and we entered a more woodsy area. Jill asked me to shine the flashlight from my phone on the path in front of us. I made some remark about being able to see fine and she scolded me again, with something like, “Okay, if you want to step on a snake, go ahead.” We laughed, but I did turn on the flashlight until the woods thinned out again.

The path took us to the base of the levee, and we walked up the steps until we could look at the lake. At the top, she asked if we could pause for a moment and slow down, because the steps always made her out of breath. I said of course we could, and we did — and I made some remark about how nice it would be once she had her surgery and wouldn’t get out of breath when she was walking.

We eventually made our way down the length of the levee, back to the Boathouse, and home.

Our Last Evening

There wasn’t much on television that Friday night, and Jill had an art class to teach the next day, so she went upstairs to her studio to work on example sculptures to show the children. When she was done, she took her bath and started getting ready for bed.

After I shut off everything downstairs, I went up to my office to check my email and found one from the assistant pastor saying the Elders had met and we were officially accepted as members. We would go through the formality of joining the church in the Sunday service. By then, Jill was finished with her bath and, as she did most every night, was watching a recorded episode of House Hunters International. I told her about the message, and we agreed that we would have to figure out how we were going to handle the pup Sunday morning.

I climbed in bed after I brushed my teeth, and — as I did every night — snuggled up with her a little bit while she fast-forwarded through a commercial. She told me that the medicine she’d gotten, which she’d applied around her nostrils as instructed, made her breath feel “hot.” It bothered her, but it was supposed to be important so she was enduring it.

When the show was over, she said she was a little bit hungry and wanted a snack. But the puppy was asleep on the floor on her side of the bed, so instead of getting out that way she rolled over top of me. She lay on top of me for a second, and we smiled at each other, gave each other a hug and a kiss, and said goodnight. She got out on my side and turned off the light as she left.

That was the last time I saw her alive.

___

What regrets was I unprepared for about that day? First and foremost, that I didn’t go to Jill’s pre-surgery appointment with her. Yes, it would have required us to put the pup in “doggie daycare,” but I wish I could have been there to hold her hand, to comfort her, as she listened to the doctors and nurses explaining what was in store.

Beyond that, I regret not having the presence of mind to suggest that we postpone the surgery, since she was so scared. Even if she refused the suggestion — and she probably would have, because she had been dealing with the effects of her condition for so long — I wish I had thought to make it.

But more than anything else, I regret not holding her closer and kissing her longer. We had no way of knowing, of course, that those would be our last hugs and kisses. We thought we would see each other in the morning, that we would go to breakfast, that she would teach her class, and that we would have more opportunities to talk and laugh and show each other that we cared. But we were wrong. We had probably said “I love you” two or three times that day — it was, thankfully, a common refrain in our lives — but I wish I had said it ten times as much, and hugged her tight every time.

___

P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

Previously in the Series:
Unprepared for Regret
Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day

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Unprepared for Regret, Part II: Valentine’s Day

(To read the first entry in this occasional series, see Unprepared for Regret.)

Valentine’s Day is special for many couples, but for my wife Jill and me it was particularly noteworthy because it marked the beginning of our serious relationship.

We had met in the Fall of 1979, when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman at Winyah High School in Georgetown, SC. She and her friend Evelyn were equipment managers for the football team, and I first met them when I stood at the counter to get my shoulder pads and helmet. It was the closest I’ve come to “love at first sight,” but she didn’t have quite the same reaction.

In the Spring of 1980, we ran track together. I first held her hand on one of the bus rides home from a meet, and I used to stand on the infield and “catch” her when she finished her races. I came to like her very much — truth to tell, I fell in love with her very quickly — and she liked me, too … but not too much later she told me she only wanted to be friends.


With Jill on the front steps of Winyah High School in the Spring of 1980 — before she told me she just wanted to be friends.

By the Fall of 1981, we were still friends. We had both had other relationships that hadn’t worked out, and I had seen her once over the summer and jokingly told her that if five years went by and neither of us married anyone then we should just marry each other. I think she laughed at the idea … but I don’t have much memory for the details of events in my life, so I can’t be sure. Anyway, that Fall Jill agreed to let me sponsor her for Homecoming, and to take her to a Halloween party and a football awards banquet, but we were not “dating” in any serious sense.

And then came Valentine’s Day of 1982.

We both went separately to the dance in the high school gymnasium, and late in the evening I asked her to dance a slow dance with me. I was never a very good dancer, but Jill was — I was always intimidated when dancing with her, and might not have had the courage to ask her if I hadn’t been just a little bit drunk (and, yes, I admit that I was a few months shy of the then-legal age of 18).

During that slow dance, possibly fueled by that same liquid courage, I said something along the lines of, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think I will always love you.”

And, to my surprise and delight, Jill said she loved me, too.

I feel certain that we kissed, and I wish I could remember it. A short time later, she had to catch a ride with her friends back to her house, and I recall being a bit unsure that she had really said she loved me. I had wanted to hear her say it for so long, I couldn’t quite believe it was real. But it was.

Ten weeks later we went to my Senior Prom together.


With Jill at my Senior Prom in May 1982.

We were married three years after that. We had some ups and downs, before and during, but our marriage lasted 34 years and change — and every Valentine’s Day was special because they marked the first time we both admitted (or, agreed) that we loved one another.

___

Postscript:

About two months after Jill died, I went home to Georgetown and walked our puppy around some of our old haunts. At one point I stood in front of the old, run-down, tawdry gym and thought about that Valentine’s dance. I wished for a clearer memory of that night — of the song we danced to, of what she wore, of the smell of her perfume, of her face in the low light — but my brain is built to remember what happened more than how it happened.

That defect in my memory — that it is “declarative” rather than “episodic” — is something I deeply regret, something I was unprepared to deal with in terms of grief, and something I dearly wish I could overcome — because I want to remember Jill more clearly, and to recall more vividly the good times we had. But I can’t … and as a result my life without her is sadder and more empty than it might otherwise be.

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Updated Grief Condition Model

Yesterday I laid out a five-point “Grief Condition” model, but with the caveat that it could stand to be adjusted somewhat. It didn’t take long to come up with a more flexible version that allows for a wider range of emotional responses.

The first version only allowed for tears, but grief comes with more than just sadness. This version doesn’t specify any single response, so it allows for other emotions such as anger, guilt, loneliness, etc., as follows:

  • GRIEFCON 5: “Normal” life, with grief (rare emotional reactions, prompted by especially poignant reminders or memories)
  • GRIEFCON 4: “Normal” grief, with life (occasional emotional reactions, at ordinarily benign reminders)
  • GRIEFCON 3: Significant grief (unexpected emotional reactions, at even happy reminders)
  • GRIEFCON 2: Overwhelming grief (frequent emotional reactions, approaching outbursts, with little prompting)
  • GRIEFCON 1: Maximum grief (nearly constant, strong emotional outbursts, brought on by next to nothing)

And as before, beyond GRIEFCON 1 would be nuclear grief: total war with myself, deep despair, characterized by constant, crushing floods of emotion.

It’s still not a perfect model, but it may be useful. And, for the record, today I think I’m still in GRIEFCON 3.

___

Related posts:
Grief Condition Three (GRIEFCON 3)
Unprepared for Regret

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Grief Condition Three (GRIEFCON 3)

The U.S. military uses the “Defense Condition” graduated scale to describe our readiness to fight a nuclear war. The DEFCON scale became an integral part of my everyday life when I was an Emergency Actions officer at U.S. Strategic Command, as part of the 55th Mobile Command and Control Squadron at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

Yesterday, I wondered whether a “Grief Condition” — GRIEFCON — graduated scale might serve to describe the state of my grief on a day-to-day basis.

The DEFCON scale is a five-point scale as follows (from Wikipedia):

  • DEFCON 5: Normal readiness (lowest state)
  • DEFCON 4: Above normal readiness (increased intelligence & security)
  • DEFCON 3: Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes (increased force readiness)
  • DEFCON 2: Armed forces ready to deploy & engage in < 6 hours (next step to nuclear war)
  • DEFCON 1: Maximum readiness (nuclear war is imminent) or immediate response (nuclear war has already started)


Our family posing with the kind of truck I drove as part of the 55 MCCS, where the DEFCON scale was a critical part of my work. (Offutt AFB, 1994)

My GRIEFCON scale would run in a similar fashion. Here’s my first cut:

  • GRIEFCON 5: “Normal” life, with grief (rare tears, prompted by especially poignant reminders or memories)
  • GRIEFCON 4: “Normal” grief, with life (unexpected tears, at ordinarily benign reminders)
  • GRIEFCON 3: Significant grief (occasional tears, at even happy reminders)
  • GRIEFCON 2: Overwhelming grief (frequent tears, with little prompting)
  • GRIEFCON 1: Maximum grief (nearly constant tears, brought on by nothing)

And at the last, beyond GRIEFCON 1, would be nuclear grief: total war with myself, characterized by constant tears with crushing sadness.

It’s not a perfect model, of course, and it could bear some adjustment — but it’s a starting point.

And, as the title says, today I’m in GRIEFCON 3. And I’m just taking it day-by-day.

___
Related post: “Unprepared for Regret”

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Unprepared for Regret

Three months ago today, my wife, my high school sweetheart, Jill Rinehart, died suddenly and unexpectedly next to me in the bed. I tried to revive her, but neither I nor the EMS responders who came when I called 911 were able to bring her back.

We had been married thirty-four years, four months, and eighteen days. We had been together “officially” as a couple for over thirty-seven years, and had actually known each other for over 40 years.

I was not prepared to lose her on that day or in that way.

She had been concerned about surgery she was scheduled to have a few days later, and she gave me some indication that she thought something might happen during the surgery or when she was in the hospital. But she didn’t seem too concerned that Friday night. We talked about our plans to get up the next morning and go to breakfast together (as we did every Saturday), and she made all the preparations for the art class she was scheduled to teach. We even discussed the plan for church that Sunday.

Then, against all our expectations, she was gone. I was unprepared, mentally or emotionally, for her loss.

I don’t mind admitting that I was unprepared emotionally. There’s an element of surprise and shock built into all of this, because even though we vow to love and honor and cherish “’til death do us part” we don’t often think much about death parting us. Or, at least in our case, when we talked about it our reasonable assumption was that I would go first. But, even so (or maybe because of that assumption), Jill and I didn’t discuss it in enough detail to say that either one of us was prepared for it. It was always something that we assumed would be “yet to come,” something in the future, something that we had time to prepare for and plan for and deal with.

But in the midst of my unpreparedness, I was surprised by an avalanche of guilt and regret that buried me, and that I’m still digging my way out from under. I did not expect it, and it has choked me and frozen me in my grief.

For instance, I was unprepared for the guilt I would feel: guilt that I was unable to help her adequately the night she died. I may go into more detail about that in a future blog post, but for now suffice it to say that I hate myself, and probably always will, for every second that I hesitated after waking up to what I now know was her last breath.

But in addition to that guilt, that doubt, that self-recrimination — which my doctor and some emergency medical technician friends insist I need not carry — I have encountered powerful regrets for which I was equally unprepared. Unexpected and intractable regrets …

  • for times that I grew so comfortable in our marriage and our home life and our relationship that I took her for granted, and didn’t tell her or show her how deeply I loved her and how much she meant to me
  • for things I said or did that bothered her, or hurt her
  • for things I failed to do or things I didn’t say that could have made her life — or just one day or just one hour of her life — more comfortable or more bearable or happier
  • for every opportunity I missed to spend an extra hour with her, whether sitting on the couch or the front porch talking, or walking in the woods or on the beach under the moonlight
  • for things I’ve learned about that I didn’t know, that at times during our marriage she was unhappy or dissatisfied or depressed: specifically, for not having clearer vision and more wisdom to see what was wrong and know how to help; for being self-absorbed and ignorant … not uncaring or unconcerned, really, but stupidly blind to her needs


(Jill at Duke Gardens.)

 

So, yes, I was unprepared for regret in Jill’s passing. Some people have told me that confronting regrets like this is a normal part of grief, and maybe it is — the “unfinished business” of life, as one dear friend put it — but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had never considered it and was not ready to handle it.

I’m not sure I’m ready to handle it even now. But I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.

If at this point I can offer any caution to you as you navigate in and through your own relationships, it’s this: do what you can, while you can, to let your beloved know how very much they mean to you. Let them know how sorry you are for those things you might have done (or that you meant to do but didn’t), for any ways in which you may have hurt them or neglected them. And let them know how ready you are to forgive them for anything they may have done, even unknowingly, that hurt you.

Keep the slate of your relationship as clean as possible for as long as possible. Erase any negativity from it as often as you can. And, so far as it is in your power to do so, only write on that slate affirmations and encouragement and praise and expressions of love. So that when — not if, but when, and hopefully many years in the future — death parts you, you are not burdened with so many regrets as I have been.

___
P.S. If you’re interested, you can read Jill’s obituary here.

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What I Learned at ConGregate

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being a guest at ConGregate, one of the nicest small science fiction and fantasy conventions I’ve ever attended. I had a great time, as usual — testament to the great folks who put it all together!


I should be singing, not just sitting around in the cantina! (Photo by Donna Smith Parker.)

And, just like at LibertyCon earlier, I learned a few things at ConGregate:

  • It feels great to hear people report that they enjoy Stephanie Minervino’s performance narrating the Walking on the Sea of Clouds audiobook — and even better when I can watch their eyes light up as I tell them that she’s my daughter, performing under her married name!
  • It feels pretty good to find out people are saying good things about your work even when you’re not around to hear them. (In this case, a friend was recommending the aforementioned lunar colony novel on the strength of its portrayal of a wheelchair-bound character.)
  • I may be on to something with respect to the novel I’m writing now. I read the first chapter of it, to generally complimentary reactions (though I don’t recall anyone at a reading ever being critical), but when I explained the general idea behind the story about half the room gasped and said, “Ooohhh.” I’ll take that as a good sign.
  • Recent research shows that centripetally induced gravity as low as 0.3g may be high enough to overcome some of the difficulties that people encounter in space (e.g., calcium loss, inner ear problems). Some earlier research took 0.8g as the minimum required, but when it comes to building any future rotating habitats 0.3g would be more attainable in the short term. (Hey, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’m interested in learning about space stuff!)
  • I really need to learn to play Jonah Knight’s song, “King of Nebraska.” Someone asked if I could play it during my set in the “ConGregate Cantina,” and I had to disappoint them. So, that’s one thing added to the “to do” list.
  • Loaning my guitar out to friends is one thing. Getting it back from them the next day is sometimes harder than anticipated.
  • Finally, just as at LibertyCon: Even though I criticize my own music and writing quite a bit, and generally find them lacking compared to my friends, folks genuinely seem to appreciate what I do. That feels pretty good.

The convention was not without its hiccups, but the ConGregate staff handled everything with good humor and general excellence! I’m very pleased that they let me participate, and I hope they’ll let me come back again!

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Some Things I Learned at LibertyCon

Over the last weekend in June, I was honored to be part of another LibertyCon — a most excellent science fiction and fantasy convention. I had a marvelous time with a fantastic group of people!


After another epic round of Terraforming Mars. I didn’t win, but I had a great time! (L-R: Rich Groller, Karl Gallagher, yours truly, Steve Jackson, Norman Johnson. Photo by C.S. Ferguson.)

And this year I learned a few things, too:

  • Terraforming Mars is my new favorite game. I was invited to play as part of the convention programming, as seen above — how cool is that? — and ended up playing three complete games. Even though I didn’t win any of them, the game is structured in such a way that I was so interested and focused on what I was trying to accomplish that I had tremendous fun with no regard to the outcome. (And, yes, since then I’ve bought my own copy of Terraforming Mars and look forward to introducing it to my family, with hopes of putting it into our regular game rotation!)
  • My children know me very well: They were correct when they predicted that I would not enjoy playing Cards Against Humanity. I don’t have the right sense of humor for that game. C’est la vie.
  • Marie Curie (a/k/a Madam Curie) is credited with saving a million lives during the First World War. She brought x-ray equipment to the field that enabled surgeons to find and remove shrapnel, and also used a radium-based method to sterilize wounds. (This historical tidbit courtesy of Jim Beall.)
  • If I could write quickly to a specific market niche, I would make a lot more money at this writing thing. But, I just write the stories I want to write — and would like to read — and I haven’t mustered the will or mastered the ability to crank out chapter after chapter in workmanlike fashion. (This observation probably applies to music as well.) So much the worse for me.
  • I would very much like to produce a new CD. At the past few conventions, folks have asked when I might come out with new music and have seemed to like my newest songs. However, since I’ve only made back a fraction of the money I spent on the first two CDs, and don’t have a ready supply of cash to pay the production expenses, I think a new CD will have to remain TBD — as in, “to be done.”
  • The entry requirement for participation in Sigma, the science fiction think tank, does not specifically include a doctoral degree. All this time, I thought only PhDs were invited to be part of the group. I don’t reckon I’d have very much to contribute, as my technical credentials and publishing history are both sketchy, but it would be pretty nifty! They get involved in some interesting projects.
  • As much as I criticize my own music and writing and find them lacking, other people seem genuinely to appreciate what I have to offer. That feels pretty good.

Once again as in years past, the whole LibertyCon staff did an amazing job (especially considering the series of difficulties they overcame!) and put on a wonderful convention. Next year’s event is already sold out (and did so in record time), so here’s looking forward to LibertyCon 33!

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We Will Congregate at ConGregate

Here we go, NC folks! The ConGregate science fiction and fantasy convention runs Friday through Sunday in High Point, with all the usual festivities! It’s a small but extremely well-run convention, full of fun and friendly people — plus me! 😂

Here’s what I have going on:

Friday:

  • 1:00 p.m. — “Science Fiction Writer’s Showcase”
  • 3:00 p.m. — Open Filk
  • 4:00 p.m. — Solo Concert!
  • 8:00 p.m. — Reading

Saturday:

  • 11:00 a.m. — Open Filk
  • 1:30 p.m. — Baen Books Traveling Slide Show & Prize Patrol
  • 4:00 p.m. — More Music (in the “Cantina”)
  • 6:00 p.m. — Open Filk
  • 9:00 p.m. — Panel, “How Much Science Should a Science Fiction Writer Know?”

Sunday:

  • 9:00 a.m. — Prayer & Praise Service
  • Noon — Open Filk
  • 1:00 p.m. — Round Robin Music Fest

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it to the Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse on Sunday, but a friend volunteered to moderate that session so it will go on as scheduled!

Here’s looking forward to a lot of fun with my fannish friends!

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Ground Control to LibertyCon …

Ground Control to LibertyCon …
Take your bourbon shots
And put your Jayne hats on …

It’s that time of year again! The fannish family reunion known as LibertyCon starts today!

LibertyCon Illustration by Todd Lockwood
(Illustration by Todd Lockwood, from the year I was the LibertyCon MC.)

I’ll be busy right out of the gate, and tonight is packed:

Friday:

  • 1 p.m. — Author’s & Artist’s Alley — come by and chat!
  • 4 p.m. — Autograph Session — again, come by and chat!
  • 5 p.m. — Opening Ceremonies — at which I will sing, so beware
  • 6 p.m. — CONCERT (or, “LibertyConcert”) — at which I will sing more, almost certainly including “LibertyCon Oddity” (quoted above)
  • 8 p.m. (until 10:30) — Terraforming Mars — playing the game in front of an audience
  • 11 p.m. — Open Filk — at which I will sing even more, and hopefully other folks will, too!

Saturday:

  • Noon — Banquet — always a fun time!
  • 2 p.m. — Baen Books Traveling Road Show
  • 4 p.m. — Panel, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Writing Advice” — and remember what free advice is worth …
  • 11 p.m. — Nerd Music Free-for-all — like Open Filking, but nerdier? (is that even possible?)

Sunday:

  • 10 a.m. — Kaffeeklatsch — which for me involves something other than coffee
  • 1 p.m. — Reading — with my friend David B. Coe!

I played my first game of Terraforming Mars last night, and had a lot of fun, so the convention’s already started well for me! If the rest of the weekend goes as well, it’ll be a fine time. Let’s make it so!

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The Respect Question

A few weeks ago I asked my newsletter subscribers* to chime in on this question: “What is respect, to you?”

I asked the question because the topic of respect had been much on my mind based on some newsworthy events. In particular, I wanted to find out if very many people would agree with me that our society seems to be lacking in respect these days.

I was pleased to receive some very thoughtful responses. I don’t know if “pleased” is the right way to describe my feeling about the fact that nearly everyone who responded agreed that respect is in short supply in our current society.

Several friends (everyone who gets my newsletter is a friend, in my book) presented ideas for why respect has fallen out of fashion. We discussed it back and forth (I always try to reply when subscribers take the time to write back), and in general we thought the observed level of disrespect generally didn’t have to do with people being less respectable than they used to be. That is, everyone is still worthy of being respected. Instead, we discussed whether it might be a combination of two things: parents not teaching their children how to display respect, and adults in general not modeling respectful behavior for young people. Since respect seems to be something we learn (like manners, which themselves are indicators of respect), that led to the question of whether respect is something we need to practice lest we forget about it or start to ignore it.

One friend made an excellent distinction between “simple” respect and what he called “high” respect — the difference between the most basic respect we pay to someone as a fellow human being (or even that we pay to the uniform they wear or the office they hold), and the higher respect that they earn by … well, by acting respectable. I contend that we do people a terrible disservice if their failure to earn (or keep) our high respect leads us to deny them even simple respect. Furthermore, I think it’s possible to withhold a measure of respect without blatantly disrespecting someone — though it may be difficult, and uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, as another friend pointed out, some people have used respect as a shield — or perhaps a bludgeon — by demanding or expecting it rather than actually working to be respectable. She suggested that “the whole concept has been cheapened” as a result. I find that idea just as sad as the generally high level of disrespect I see every day.

I was interested in one friend’s equating respect with trust, and he’s right: it is very difficult to respect someone if we don’t trust them. That’s quite a contrast with respect as the foundation of manners, which can be thought of as the way we ensure that people are comfortable being around us: as one friend wrote, displaying good manners demonstrates that you respect someone. (One of the things I learned long ago about manners — in a talk given by Tony Campolo at a National Youthworkers Convention — is that they may be most needed when we least want to use them. When thought of that way, showing manners to people we may not respect very much demonstrates the difference between simple respect and high respect.)

As another friend wrote, “You don’t treat someone else with respect so that they treat you with respect, or even because you think they are ‘worthy’ of respect — you do it because YOU are worthy of respect, worthy of self-respect, able to meet your own eyes in the mirror.”

respect
(Image: “Respect,” by Martin Abegglen, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I deeply appreciate everyone who offered their opinions and ideas. The more I think about it, the more I’m not sure we can overstate the hazard to society from being unwilling to treat people with simple, basic respect regardless of whether they have earned or squandered any deeper respect. That’s how debates boil over into arguments, arguments boil over into disputes, and disputes boil over into violence. The issue reminds me of an old Robert A. Heinlein quote about the loss of politeness (again, coming back to the question of manners, which themselves demonstrate respect), and how it’s “more significant than a riot” in identifying a dying culture.

I wish I knew how to fix it. I hope it can be fixed.

Do you have any insights? I’d love to hear them.

Thanks, as always, for your time!

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