Be your best self: the definition of respect

This blog post is an ethics speech given by Ben ’20 to the Upper School on the topic of respect. You can also watch a video of his speech here.

Thank you, Will, for your wonderful introduction and to Mr. Bellaschi and the Prefects for the opportunity and honor to speak today. So when I was first told that I was chosen to speak on the topic of respect, I was very happy. I was given the details, the date, and was given free rein to write my speech. Then I told some of my friends, as you do, and then my mom and brother and after telling them, it hits me. Wait, I actually have to write this thing. After thinking about how to approach such a broad topic as respect for a while and meeting with a bunch of people, I just wrote about what is important to me and hopefully to you guys, too. 

Now I don’t know about you, but I had trouble defining respect. Of course, there is a dictionary, or I could just look it up -- but for my personal definition of respect, I came up blank besides a gut feeling that I have. I believe that all of us have a base understanding of respect, how to be respectful, and how powerful it is.

When you are disrespectful or someone is disrespectful to you, you feel it. It’s like a little punch to your stomach, from yourself. Lin-Manuel Miranda used an analogy in his mega smash hit musical, Hamilton, that I think perfectly relates to respect. And if you thought I would go through a speech without mentioning Hamilton, you are sorely mistaken.

In his song, “The World was Wide Enough,” Hamilton is just about to be shot, and he goes on this huge monologue going over everything from his life. He relates legacy with planting seeds in a garden that you never get to see, and I believe you can say the same about respect.

And you can take it even farther with the garden analogy. Think about that with every connection you have with someone, you have a little garden of respect. You both water and take care of the plants, and it’s a pretty good time all around. That would represent a respectful relationship. When you lose someone’s respect or are disrespectful to them, it is like taking a lighter and burning down the entire garden, leaving only the ashes and the hope to restart.

The finicky thing about respect is that you can’t just balance one act of disrespect with an act of respect. It’s not a one-to-one transaction. You have to earn someone’s respect through being respectful and a good person overall, but once someone has lost respect for you, it is a long and tough trip to try and get it back. But that still doesn’t define respect. You know? So what does?

An important aspect of respect to me is about not only how you treat other people but then how other people see you and your lasting memory. This lasting memory is especially important in regards to goodbyes, a topic I am already far too close with. Now there are many types of goodbyes, for example, the goodbye that my brothers and I will have from the campus I have called home for 10 years. The goodbye I will say to my mom, my sister, my brother and our two dogs as I go off to college and who knows where after that. And the goodbye you say to a loved one as they pass away.

Now all goodbyes including those three have the commonality of respect and its lasting impact. The final words to someone as you say goodbye will be a humongous part of how the person’s memory of you will change so you must make them respectful. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to say goodbye.

Whenever I get into a fight with my sister, say HYPOTHETICALLY before school, when I say she should just bring her trash to the trash can that is literally right next to the door of Holton, but she refuses for some weird reason, and says she’ll get it later at night but I know she won’t so I say no, I always think about God forbid, I may never see her again.

I may get into an accident, something might happen at school, a whole list of possibilities and circumstances that I can’t control. Would I really want my last words I said to her be mean, rude, or disrespectful? Would I be able to live with myself? So no matter how much we fight and no matter how ugly things get, I try to thrown in a “love you” before she closes the door.

But I’ll be honest, some days I forget. I’m not perfect. I worry whenever I do forget as I’m driving off to Landon and I hope I’ll see her at home later that day to engage in regular conversation, say something nice, watch “Friends,” or just mess with her and hope she finds it as funny as I always do (which she never really does). When I come home, and I hear her music, which she says is definitely a lot better than the weird old people music I listen to, I smile, because I know I won’t have to say goodbye yet.

Me, my mom, my brother and sister, we are no strangers to this. I had to have my final conversation with my dad at 4-years-old as he was about to get on the helicopter that he’d die in, and I finally got to say goodbye to him with the 2,000 attendees at the funeral. I hadn’t even started grade school. 

We have all had our final conversations with someone, whether we were able to say goodbye or not and chances are, they haven’t all been great. We have all had regrets with these conversations where we think how we should’ve done this or said that but in the end, it’s worthless since the moment has already passed.

So just remember that nothing in life is certain, anything can happen at any time, and try to use that to help you be respectful, because you always want to leave a great memory whether it’ll be someone’s final memory of you or not.

You guys are probably thinking: jeez, Ben, that’s a lot of pressure, I need to talk to everyone like it is the last time I will see them? That’s pretty heavy.

I’d say that the answer to that question would be: of course not. You don’t have to read your will or say your final goodbyes whenever you see your friend in the hallway. Just be respectful. Be nice. Make sure that if, God forbid, it is your final memory with someone, make it a happy one.

Now being respectful is pretty tough. You might find it hard to actually be respectful to people, or simply don’t know where to start. I think my two rules can help with that.

I don’t have these rules hung up in my room, or in my locker, or anywhere for that matter. They are just subconscious rules that I try to follow whether I’m conscious that I am following them or not. I believe they are a good baseline on how to treat people with respect.

Rule number one: Just be nice, be courteous, say hi or good morning to people as they pass by, ask how their day has been or if someone seems down, ask them what’s wrong and see if you can help. Just little things like telling Mr. Perkins about this great ice tea you had, or Mr. Pipoli about the new Call of Duty game, or in the lunchroom: making sure you say please and thank you to the hard working people there will not only the people feel happier but you will too.

Rule number two: Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird said it best when he said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And while that sentence can really come off creepy, think about what he is saying. Try to think about where someone else has been. Look at things from their perspective and try to understand. Everyone has bad days, but some people are going through bad weeks, bad months, or even bad years. A close family member might’ve died or there might be tension in the house. Whatever it is, just try to understand. It will help you be empathetic and grow closer to people.

All of the things I have said over the past couple minutes, basically just combine into being the best person you can be, and that’s the true definition of respect. To be respectful is to be the best person you can be to the person you are interacting with and with yourself.

God, it just feels so good to say it aloud after thinking and working on it for so long. To be nice, empathetic, understanding, honorable. It all adds up to respect. I realize now that respect is not only the most important virtue to have but is a conglomeration of all the other ones by just being the best person you can be. So in conclusion, be you, the best version of you. The you that creates the best memories. The you that helps people. The you that isn’t afraid to say goodbye. And the you that empathizes and understands. It will lead to great things and a lot of respect. I promise. Thank you, and of course, go Bears.