First respect should not ‘have to be earned’

‘Respect has to be earned’: how often have we heard that one? But this is one prescription we should not blindly accept. I would contend that ongoing respect has to be earned, but in a fairer world, the respect of one human for another should be a right until that respect is either lost or consolidated.

All people we encounter are entitled to receive the benefit of any doubt by way of initial respect. How can respect be earned if we don’t give a person the chance to earn that respect? The word ‘respect’ comes from the Latin, ‘respectus’ which means ‘look back at’ or ‘regard’.

All too often people are mistreated because of who they are, where they live, how they speak, or how they dress. This discrimination should not be acceptable in a just society. I am not preaching from my pulpit, dear readers, because I am as big an offender as anybody else.

While I would always have claimed to give any man a chance, the older I get, the more inclined I have become to judge a person at face value. I have been given many lessons over the years as to the error of my ways. By way of example, I am going to tell you a true story of where I fell short of the above ideals, but in this instance was lucky enough to be able to put the thing right.

The Squash Club of the 1980s was a private members club, made up of really lovely people; mostly of a certain ‘standing’ in the community. The standards were set before I bought the place, but we were ever anxious to maintain those same standards. As well as promoting the game of squash, we also provided aerobic and dance classes, fitness programmes, sports injury clinic and we had three different gyms, with qualified instructors at hand.

A new gym instructor, devoid of local knowledge, was giving a ‘free introduction’ to two guys in the men’s gym. One of the members came upstairs to reception and told me; ‘if you have those two lads as members, you will have none else’. I quickly checked it out and he was right. The two boyos were bad news and didn’t make the cut; ‘unless you have a proposer and seconder’ I explained politely to them.

One day shortly after that encounter, a 20-something guy came in and asked about membership. As soon as he told me his name, I performed the standard trick of giving him an application form to take away. Three times over the following two weeks he came back and I fobbed him off each time.

But on his third attempt and failing to be accepted, the young man looked me straight in the eye and addressed me thus; “I want you to tell me straight am I wasting my time coming in to you. I am a handballer and a runner and all I want is to pay to use your gym so that I can be better at sport.” The hurt in his voice stopped me dead. “Come in and see me tomorrow,” I said.

That night I rang my friend and fellow-member, Garda Joe Hanney. “He has never come to our attention,” Joe told me.

David arrived in, a bit apprehensive looking, next morning. I took his year’s membership fee and gave him his receipt and club card. The satisfied relief on his face was clear as daylight. “You will have no bother from me, I won’t even come upstairs,” he said.

With that remark, I put my hand on his shoulder with the words; “David, don’t ever let me hear you say anything like that again. You are a full member of the club now, with the same rights and privileges, subject only to the same rules as every other member… and I want to see you upstairs.”

I used to watch David sometimes and how hard he pushed himself with his gym workout. He never played squash, but he would come upstairs and watch the matches from the viewing area off the bar. On tournament nights, he might drink a pint of Guinness and I could see a sublime difference unfolding in the man.

He was naturally quiet and soft-spoken, but now he smiled and laughed with other members on party nights. In time they all got to know him and he did earn respect. Undeserved praise was given to me for seeing ‘something different’ in this member from a challenging background. I say undeserved praise, because I was someone who denied the man the initial human respect that he was entitled to.

Some years afterwards, David, came and asked me for a reference. I hand-wrote it on company notepaper. I was happy to do so, because I owed it to David.

Don’t Forget

Society is always taken by surprise by any new example of common sense.