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Learning to See Again: Respect in a Volatile Age

Taking a Second Look

Learning to See Again: Respect in a Volatile Age

by Mark Waters

“Will I get shot if I come to Texas?” The prospective Chinese student’s query was neither melodramatic nor overstated. It was simply the first question that was voiced aloud by a sincere student being recruited from China to come to McMurry University in Abilene, Texas.

The question “Will I be safe?” is important. A basic human need, safety is the second layer in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is natural to be concerned about one’s safety in an alien land. In this case, however, the alien land is the United States. With our tacitly presumed privilege, Americans are used to thinking of others as aliens and other locations as unsafe. Don’t travel “there,” it is dangerous. A Copernican revolution haunts American hubris. The United States is not the center of the civilized world. Perhaps it never was; perhaps there is no center.

Whatever the case, the student’s question provides an opportunity for privileged Americans to look at the world in a new way. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, MIT’s William Isaacs reminds readers that the word respect is from the Latin respecere, which means “to see again.” We are living in a time when it is more important than ever to learn to see again. Respecting others involves seeing again, looking more closely, so that we see the real person or culture or religion rather than only seeing our presupposition or stereotype of the other.

Respect, of course, is more than seeing again. Respect includes valuing others as equals and relating to others with equity. Nonetheless, the ability to value others often requires the second look, a look that suspends presuppositions and roots out our own implicit bias. Respect includes learning to see again.

Harvard’s Diana Eck tells of a Buddhist temple that was vandalized by middle-school aged boys. After the boys were apprehended, law enforcement consulted with temple leaders about pressing charges. The leaders said they wouldn’t press charges if the boys would help with clean-up. On the designated day, the boys gathered with members of the temple. Together, they cleaned and repaired the mess. They shared a meal together and the boys had an opportunity to learn about Buddhist practices that take place in the temple.

Photo:    Max Pixel

Photo: Max Pixel

Eck spoke with one of the boys. His name was Angel. Angel told her he had no idea what went on in the temple when he and his friends vandalized it. “Now that I know the people and what they do here,” he said, “I would never want to harm the temple.” One of the temple leaders said to him, “Your name is Angel (pronounced Anhel), that means angel. Would you be the guardian angel for our temple?” By taking a second look – a closer look – at the temple, Angel learned to see in a new way. The second look resulted in respect for the people he had previously wished to harm.

But there is more. Respecting others also involves a second look at ourselves. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). The Chinese student’s fear of being shot causes me to look again at myself, my culture, my religion, my state and nation. In these politically tumultuous days, many Americans seem to fear or loathe the “other.” Instead, can we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of the other? Through the Chinese student’s eyes, through the eyes of an undocumented immigrant, through the eyes of someone of a different faith or political persuasion? Such perspective-taking is crucial for civility in an increasingly globalized world and polarized nation. Civility requires us to learn to see again.