Of all our fears, probably the one that is the most intense is the fear of losing face, of being shamed. To most of us, our self-respect means more than anything else. If we lose it, we often prefer to die.
No other species besides humans has it. Animals think only about leading their lives as physically comfortable as possible. If they meet a stronger animal, they retreat without a second thought, and certainly without embarrassment. We, on the other hand, might choose to confront those who are considered stronger than us in the hope that it will earn us respect, or because we are embarrassed to confess that we are weaker than someone else. The complications resulting from this respect-driven behavior are enormous.
However, for all the trouble the pursuit of honor causes us, it is also the engine of human development. Were it not for the yearning to supersede others, we would not develop civilization and would still be as savage as our ancestors who lived in caves or slept in trees for fear of being eaten by animals.
“For all the trouble the pursuit of honor causes us, it is also the engine of human development. Were it not for the yearning to supersede others, we would not develop civilization and would still be as savage as our ancestors who lived in caves or slept in trees for fear of being eaten by animals.”
Take, for example, the 8-year-old boy who just climbed El Capitan together with his father. The cliff, a towering granite monolith about 3,000 feet (914 m) high in Yosemite National Park, California, is one of the world’s ultimate challenges for climbers. What drove his father to put him in such risk? The desire for fame, the pursuit of honor, as the father himself said, “What an amazing week! I’m so proud of Sam [the boy’s name].”
To many people, respect means more than their physical life. Evidently, in some cases, it means more than their children’s lives.
The farther we move from the animate level and into the human level, the more we value respect, and the less we mind our physical existence. We envy anyone and everyone who achieved something that we consider praiseworthy because we want the praise. Some people even envy famous people from many generations ago, such as great rulers or conquerors. Others wish to be the greatest of all time in their field and hope their achievements will outlive their physical life long after they are gone.
Yet, the yearning for respect is not inherently negative. There is a good purpose for everything, including the pursuit of respect. Chasing it, this pursuit makes us polish and improve our values and goals. It lifts us from physical desires to spiritual ones, and eventually drives us to relinquish our very nature because its self-centeredness seems dishonorable to us.
“As we polish and repolish our values, we come to realize that transcending the yearning for respect and concentrating on others rather than on ourselves is the most honorable, admirable, and worthy goal.”
When that happens, and our own selfish pursuit of respect leads us to want to become unselfish, we realize that had it not been for the pursuit of honor, we would not have come to such a sublime and noble goal. As we polish and repolish our values, we come to realize that transcending the yearning for respect and concentrating on others rather than on ourselves is the most honorable, admirable, and worthy goal. A person who has come to this will no longer pursue respect and will avoid the complications that accompany this craving.
Moreover, such a person will be kind to others, and not in order to gain their respect, but because kindness itself is the quality most worthy of respect.
Society “plants” in our minds all kinds of ideas about what is respectful and what is not. Often, these ideas are detrimental to us or to others. One who has risen above the dependence on society’s respect will not be influenced by fleeting, negative ideas about what is respectful. That person will feel that submission to one’s own ego is the most dishonorable state there is, and caring for others is the most admirable. When doing the admirable thing becomes people’s motivation for action, the world will be a great place to live in.