Growing up, my father had a large extended family of Italian relatives. They were like all Italians – boisterous, loving, wanted to feed you – but they had their own notions of how one moves through the world and the ways in which you act in service to others.
My father internalized those lessons and he lived them out every day for my sister and I to see. From him we learned about Love, Respect, Courtesy, and Obligation. We learned from his example how those four words make the world turn and can make it a better place in the process.
My Dad once wrote about these lessons and, with his permission, I’d like to share his words with you.
When I was growing up, my Italian uncles used to talk to my cousins and me about “things.” Life. How to live it. How to get along in it. How to make things work for yourself and others. I didn’t pay much attention at the time, I thought it was just the ramblings of “old men.” But as I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, I remember the things they said and have come to realize that I could have made my life much easier and made myself a more effective person had I listened more carefully.
They talked about Love, Respect, Courtesy and Obligation. Four very different but related and intertwined concepts; concepts I only understood superficially until recent years.
Love is what we feel for those closest to us. Parents, spouse, children, close friends and relatives. Because we love them, we will (or should) naturally respect them, treat them with courtesy and always, always discharge our obligations faithfully.
Respect without love is what we have for those who we find admirable or even those who we don’t find admirable but who can affect our lives with their power. By respecting them we will learn from those who we admire and we will not underestimate those we look upon as adversaries. If we make that respect open and public, we can even curry favor and maybe turn situations to our advantage. Remember, these were Italians.
Finding advantage is second nature, even a bit Machiavellian. By respecting those around us (and respect for self came into this as well, because by respecting others, we command their respect), we won’t allow ourselves to be taken advantage of nor will we take advantage of others, especially when it isn’t in our own best interests in the long run.
Self-respect also means we learn from what we see and avoid those who repeatedly treat us with obvious lack of respect or courtesy.
Courtesy is the outward sign of respect. It doesn’t mean you actually do love or respect someone, but it does lubricate the day to day friction of normal human interaction. It can also put an adversary at ease and give you an advantage. But mostly, it makes life work better because there is less conflict if one can find a way to be courteous to even the least important people we come in contact with. My Uncle Tony used to say “Never do business with a man who treats a waitress rudely. If courtesy in small ways isn’t in his nature, he will never show respect or courtesy when it comes time for him to meet his obligations. He will have no honor.”
Obligation is the last and, maybe in some ways, the driving force of everything. If we commit ourselves to others, be it through marriage, friendship, business or social contact, we automatically take on obligation. We may not like the persons involved, we may even look upon them as adversaries, but if we are to be honorable, we must always keep our obligations in mind and discharge them without fail. The world judges us more by how we handle our obligations than any other aspect of our behavior. A person we’ve met for the first time will think less of us (we will have earned less of their respect) if we are not a person of our word. If we accept responsibility, we must meet the demands of that responsibility. It is upon us to make sure that all aspects of the situation at hand are covered and that anyone who is affected by the decisions or actions we take are informed and prepared for the action that will be taken and any potential consequences that can be anticipated. Just simple courtesy. If we cannot fulfill our obligations, then it is incumbent upon us to inform those who will be affected, and to find ways to delegate or offer the power of decision making to someone else who may be able to do a better job, even if that means we lose the respect of those around us. Never let your own failings or weaknesses spill onto others because you were too proud to admit that you were in too deep. In the long run, they will respect you more for making sure your obligations were met and by admitting your own failings. You may also have created an opportunity to learn from someone else so that next time you’ll know better how to deal with the situation. Once again, self-respect comes into play here both by taking advantage of the chance to grow and learn, but also in the positive feedback we give ourselves in having done the right things. Uncle John said that we even diminish ourselves in our own eyes when we fail to meet obligations and that it becomes habit and self-feeding. Eventually we are incapable of meeting any challenge.
Love. Respect. Courtesy. Obligation. I’m sure that what I’ve written here only serves to scratch the surface. Maybe all I’ve done is make it obvious how little I understand of what my uncles tried to tell us. I do know that when I look back on situations that have gone well and interactions that occur smoothly, it seems that these concepts have been applied, consciously or unconsciously.
“It’s a simple thing,” they used to say. Well, however true, I’m sure that as hard I may have tried, there are elements of these “simple things” that I have failed to live up to. Failed miserably…any number of times. As my very Catholic Uncle Louie used to say, that’s why we have confession and why we try to forgive others. Forgive is part of respect and courtesy. All I ask from those around me (even those who don’t really love me) is the degree of respect that allows me simple dignity, the courtesy that would be afforded a waitress, and that those who have obligations that affect me discharge them with some measure of reliability, and in the end maybe a little forgiveness for my own failings. The rest is up to me.
Love. Respect. Courtesy. Obligation.
I hope that as I move through the world, I honor the ways in which my Dad taught me these lessons, that I live up to the ideals those words espouse. Just like Dad, I know I fail sometimes. Maybe too many times. What I do know is that I try. And tomorrow is always another day to get it just right.