One of the world’s greatest story tellers, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote a famous version of a folktale that exists in several countries and cultures around the world. It is called “The Old Grandfather and His Little Grandson.” It is the story of people losing respect for another person and how a child helps them see their error and regain respect.
The grandfather had become very old. His legs would not carry him, his eyes could not see, his ears could not hear, and he was toothless. When he ate, bits of food sometimes dropped out of his mouth. His son and his son’s wife no longer allowed him to eat with them at the table. He had to eat his meals in the corner near the stove. One day they gave him his food in a bowl. He tried to move the bowl closer; it fell to the floor and broke. His daughter-in-law scolded him. She told him that he spoiled everything in the house and broke their dishes, and she said that from now on he would get his food in a wooden dish. The old man sighed and said nothing. A few days later, the old man’s son and his wife were sitting in their hut, resting and watching their little boy playing on the floor. They saw him putting together something out of small pieces of wood. His father asked him, “What are you making, Misha?” The little grandson said, “I’m making a wooden bucket. When you and Mama get old, I’ll feed you out of this wooden dish.” The young peasant and his wife looked at each other and tears filled their eyes. They were ashamed because they had treated the old grandfather so meanly, and from that day they again let the old man eat with them at the table and took better care of him.
Respect is a virtue, a habit which is central to human happiness. The core meaning of the word “respect” is to give something or someone particular attention and consideration. To respect someone means you recognize that he or she is important and deserves to be treated well. Like each of us, that person has a mind and human feelings.
In our story, the mother and father lost “sight” of the old man. Gradually, they forgot that he was person and began treating him as if he hardly existed. Just “something” that irritated and got in their way. In effect, they stopped “seeing” the old man. By trying to make a wooden bowl, the type a dog would eat from, the boy’s actions shocked his parents into recognizing how they had lost “sight” for the old man and had stripped him of the respect he deserved.
Clearly, the old man had gradually came to annoy his son and daughter-in-law. The respect they once had for him was overtaken by their feelings of frustration and exasperation. It is very natural in life to develop feeling toward people who appear to be getting in the way of what we want. Or people that we just don’t like. Such feelings can become habits, habits which blind us from seeing deeper into others and denying them the respect that is due them.
It is easy to respect people we like, people we like to be around and people who like us. People who have the virtue of respect have done the often-hard work of, first, understanding the essential value of all people, and, second, acting in a “respectful” manner toward others. However, understanding without action is empty. It was not enough for the boy’s parents to recognize that they had lost respect for the old man. They took the action-step to correct their mean behavior and bring him back to the family table. Respect needs action.
One final point. The virtue of respect looks in two directions. It looks outward and it looks inward. Our story is about outward respect and the boy’s parents seeing their outward lack of respect and correcting it. There is, also, respect for ourselves. Many people over the course of time lower their regard for themselves and what they can and should be. They get disappointed with how they are living their lives. They lose sight of what they are capable of becoming. They come to “dislike” and disrespect themselves. Having lost sight of the respect they should have for themselves, it is so easy to lose respect for those around them.
Reading great stories, both from history and in fiction, puts us in contact with examples of people living virtuous lives. We see examples of people who have formed good habits and treat those around them with the respect they deserve. Read well, these stories can be a major source of inspiration for us to be all we can be.
Edmund Burke, (1729-1797) a famous Irish statesman, summed up the power that human example can have on us this way: “Example is the school of mankind.”
Kevin Ryan is the founder and Director Emeritus of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University.