Drawing the Line Between Respect and Reverence

Early on in our development, most of us are taught the notion and meaning of “respect,” usually within the context of the culture surrounding us. For some, respect is something granted automatically based on occupational titles, personal or professional achievements, chronological age, family or clan relationships, etc. Others emphasize that respect is something that must be earned, and is not conferred automatically.

No matter one’s upbringing or cultural values, there are times when the distinction between Respect and Reverence is blurred, and this can be problematic. We live in a world filled with both Light and Darkness, and consequently, there are many shadows. As the eloquent Oglala Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk said, “It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among these shadows, men get lost.”

The line between respect and reverence is oftentimes a thin one, but worth heeding with caution; we must temper our idealism with a measure of objectivity to safeguard ourselves from being led astray.


Respect is defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in two very relevant ways:

“An act of giving particular attention” (consideration) as well as “High or special regard” (esteem).

Depending on one’s religious/spiritual beliefs, we all are granted, or get to enjoy, a decidedly finite amount of time in this world. For many years, our wants and needs are quite simple, and in most cases provided for by others until we reach a stage of development to start providing for ourselves. However, during these early formative years, we are to some degree or another socialized to pass judgment on people, institutions and things, in part to determine what is worthy of focusing our most precious commodity (time) on, and in part allowing us to interact within the societal mores and accepted standards of the larger culture.

Consequently, sometimes we are taught to respect certain things reflexively, without much further thought or analysis. Depending on perspective, this may or may not be appropriate, or even ultimately healthy for our own future development.

Personally, deciding on who or what is worthy of your respect is largely a personal choice, guided hopefully by one’s conscience and some objective analysis of the reasons why the target of the respect is worthy of purposeful consideration and emphasis. Those who deliberately choose to go “against the grain” may be viewed as mavericks and even malcontents; sometimes these people change the world for the better (as it might be commonly and universally defined), others lead themselves and others down twisting paths filled with deceit, strife and more often than not, hatred.

Whenever you are unsure, I would suggest to respect those people and things that are worthy of such admiration and emulation by virtue of the good which they return to the world around them through their actions or by the very fact of their existence; those that shine a beacon of light when the darkness closes in and step forward to be counted without thought of personal reward , much less risk; and those that facilitate and recognize the universal interconnectedness which binds all living things.

This is as good a starting point as any.


Invariably at some point, perhaps out of idealism or a willful and deliberate blindness to the faults and imperfections that mar all things, respect is transformed into reverence. Under certain circumstances, this thinking can become exceedingly dangerous, and cause us to adore and perhaps “worship” false idols.

In traditional Eastern martial arts, for example, students are often taught unquestioned obedience to a Master, and even more senior disciples of that master, because it is presumed that they are further along the path than the more inexperienced student. In one context this may be true – knowledge and command of a particular “art” or fighting style – yet this does not necessarily suggest that the Master or senior disciples are any wiser. Bruce Lee famously rebelled in part against such thinking, and faced enormous resistance and opposition from those who felt that he was disrespecting traditions because he lacked the discipline and appropriate mindset to demonstrate the proper obsequiousness to “his betters.”

In my own personal pursuit of the path of martial arts mastery, I have been fortunate to train under and with some individuals who are considered to be “masters,” and while I greatly respect the skills and understanding which they may have within their particular expertise, I do not automatically revere them as paragons of spiritual, ethical or philosophical wisdom. Some perhaps do have components of such knowledge, and if so, are given greater weight outside of a more narrowly defined context. Certainly none of them have demanded any unreasonable demonstration of respect based solely on their rank or experience; those that do, in my opinion, are the ones to be most leery of. Those who would coerce reverence, or falsely manipulate others to create such a feeling, are dangerous indeed.

To be reverent of someone or something is to imbue it with great power. We would do well to only cautiously extend such favored treatment and create such vulnerability to ourselves after very deliberate and careful consideration.

While respect is a gift which should be freely given, reverence is a sacrifice of some piece of ourselves upon a higher altar, and therefore must be reserved for only the most worthy recipients…

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