Seeking Self-Respect

“Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows

with the ability to say no to oneself.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel



I know nothing about football. But I know enough to know when bad behavior should no longer be tolerated simply because you are a world-class athlete but not a world-class human being. I was shocked when I heard the news that a Miami Dolphin’s player left the team because he was being bullied by another player with racist comments and threats to his life.  Playful behavior is acceptable and even desirable in building a team, but boundaries are not always obvious and what may feel like a bad joke to some may look unprofessional and damaging to others. It’s hard to be “incognito” if your life, your pranks and your language are very public.

The more I read about football hazing, the more shocking it seems: rookies forced to pick up $30,000 dinner tabs, new team members having their hair shaved or strong-armed into carrying another player’s heavy load. Some in the sport believe that this behavior is silently accepted because the meanness off the field often translates into worthwhile aggression on the field. A more insightful assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders observed this about the big, tough guys he works with: “Just because you can lift a house doesn’t mean you’re not emotionally fragile.

In The Complete Essays, Michel de Montaigne argues that, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” This odd turn of phrase – to belong to oneself – conveys a quiet self-confidence and self-awareness. Montaigne implies the value of knowing yourself helps in your own self-management.

We search for the respect of others. Few people would say that they seek respect from themselves, and yet there seems to be a certain lack of self-respect when it comes to behavior that diminishes others. Self-respect leads to respect for others. When we have deferential regard and a healthy esteem for ourselves, we are better able to have compassion and insight into the needs of others. “Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself,” wisely observes Rabbi Heschel.

 Our society often encourages us to say yes to ourselves because we can or because we feel like it. We have an expression in Hebrew “magia li” – I have it coming to me, which echoes a very old and popular commercial for L’Oreal hair color that many of us remember: “Because I’m worth it.” Spend the extra. Treat yourself. Eat whatever you want. Say whatever you want. In this mentality, anything goes because you are the center and perhaps the only judge of your own actions. You answer only and ultimately to yourself.

 From a spiritual perspective, all the yeses we may nurture ourselves with may be detrimental to long-term goals. We may believe that yes is the only key to success. It is a word of possibility and permission. But it can also be a word of excess and thoughtlessness. Many leadership writers believe that self-discipline is the key to personal greatness that helps people with average abilities achieve magical results and that without, no amount of talent or desire can overcome. Say yes to self-improvement. Say yes to healthy drive and ambition. Say yes to your talent and your inner light. But know yourself enough to say no to behaviors and language that loudly advertises  selfishness or cruelty.

As it turns out, L’Oreal changed their slogan not once but twice. It became “Because you’re worth it,” and then in 2009 morphed into “Because we’re worth it.” Even in the vain universe of cosmetics, we have watched an “I” turn into a “we.”

“We” marks the beginning of a team. Say yes to our collective ability to change the world. Say no to personal obstructionist behavior that leads to a breakdown of teamwork and even, at times, to self-destruction.


Shabbat Shalom