The late Aretha Franklin famously sang about respect, a commodity in short supply in this country these days. If you watched the Supreme Court nominee hearings recently, you saw the shortage demonstrated repeatedly. The outlook for the future is not great.
Many of us, or at least I, feel helpless to affect what goes on in Washington. We can complain about the politicians, even contact them, usually with little result. But I have begun to wonder if the problem is, at least partly, to paraphrase what Cassius said to Brutus in “Julius Caesar,” not in our politicians, but in ourselves. Disrespect for women, for the poor, for the disabled, for the elderly, for anybody not part of our own personal circle, is widespread.
It may be that some of it starts in early childhood. When I was a child and growing up, we children in my family not only said “Yes sir” and “No m’am” to our elders at school or church, we said it to our parents. I would have felt totally out of place, and would have expected instant correction, if I’d said “yeah” to either of them. Certainly this is a surface matter, a practice rejected in other parts of the country even then, and by society as a whole today. But it taught us to be polite, whether we felt like it or not. Like so much of what is generally classified as “manners,” it instilled a habit that smoothed communication between people, decreasing the likelihood of hurt feelings and verbal revenge.
A discarding of the outward symbols of respect has become so pervasive that we have come to expect the unfortunate loss and are surprised when simple courtesy shows up. Some time ago, as I approached the front door of my bank, I saw that two young men, perhaps in their early 20s, were having an animated conversation right in front of the door. My annoyance began to grow; I was certain they were not going to move. Then, just as I shuffled up to the door, one of them stepped back, addressed me politely, and swung the door open for me. I was immediately impressed with him and also angry at myself for having assumed the worst.
Today, while crossing the parking lot to my car from the supermarket, I saw one of the signs of possibly ignorance but more likely pure uncaring and disrespect for handicapped citizens. A massive Harley Davidson motorcycle was parked squarely in the center of the hash-marked unloading area beside a handicapped parking place. This is one of those things that sets my teeth on edge. For 20 years, I transported my late wife, paralyzed from the chest down, in a handicap-equipped van. My intention always was to help her live as nearly a normal life as was possible, so I took her shopping, out to eat, to church, etc. One of the most troublesome of the many problems involved was that of loading and unloading her into and out of the vehicle. The van was a great help. I would have it kneel, hit a switch that unlocked her chair from its position in the front passenger space, and then she would drive her chair out the ramp and onto the ground. Unless some idiot had parked a motorcycle or a shopping cart or another car in the unloading space. Even when unloading was uneventful, there was no assurance that reloading would be. The pleasant after-effects of an excellent restaurant meal are quickly dissipated when you come out in the dark, it’s raining, and someone has parked so close that you can’t lower the ramp and have room to maneuver the chair onto it and into the vehicle.
People who thoughtlessly and disrespectfully make life difficult for the handicapped are sometimes the handicapped themselves. Some with a handicap tag seem to consider the tag a special privilege that they must use all the time, whether it’s needed or not. When I see someone with such a tag park in a handicap space when a regular space is open beside it, I wonder why they don’t use the regular space and leave the other one open for the next person who needs it. But maybe that’s too much to expect.
Lest you think I am perfect, let me say that I’m sure I’ve been guilty of some of the things with which I have charged others. But I promise to try to do better if you will.
Robert B. Simpson is a retired Army officer and freelance writer who lives in Columbus. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.