Headlines across the nation continue to call out the horrors of mass shootings, the disturbing acts of sexual harassment by powerful people and the inexcusable incidents of abuse. You could add to those headlines other issues, including bullying, abortion, gang violence, contempt for political foes and scores of others. Society continues to scramble for answers — often looking for solutions in all the wrong places. I have never seen a headline that included reverence as the answer to what is driving such deplorable behavior. Reverence just might be a vital virtue that is part of the path toward better days for America.
Two years ago I spent a month exploring reverence as a legitimate answer to many of our nation’s challenges. What I learned changed the way I approach people, especially those I may disagree with.
People who are losing the capacity to feel awe and reverence are in danger of losing a great deal more. As a society we have lost much when it comes to reverence over the last several decades, and we simply cannot afford to lose any more.
It is a mistake to think that awe and reverence belong solely to the realm of religion. I have experienced awe and reverence in a Shinto shrine and in a mighty cathedral, while hiking a mountain peak and just walking around the neighborhood with my wife. Reverence can be experienced listening to music or reading the words of poets, philosophers and prophets. Reverence often comes when I watch and listen to the very young and the very old. Reverence can simply be experienced as a dynamic power that drives a feeling of gratitude-inspiring awe.
Why discuss reverence as part of the solution to America’s current crush of social problems? Because, in our fast-forward world, we have forgotten what reverence means in our individual lives and in society as a whole. Reverence fosters authentic humility, kindness and genuine leadership. Without reverence, communities begin to fall apart. The Greeks before Plato actually saw reverence as one of the bulwarks of their society.
Author Jeff Woodward stated, “Without reverence, people do not know how to respect each other or how to respect themselves. Without reverence an army cannot tell the difference between what it is and a gang of bandits. Without reverence, we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect. Without reverence a house is not a home, a boss is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher. In our technology-driven society, reverence has fallen beneath the horizons of our intellectual vision.”
A lack of reverence for the miracle, power and potential in every life, from the yet-to-be-born baby in the womb to the aging veteran, changes the way we treat them. A lack of reverence leads to contempt — the belief in the worthlessness of another human being. Contempt is how many justify lying, stealing, slander, verbal and physical assault and even neglect.
Reverence is also a vital principle of leadership because it promotes mutual respect between leader and follower. Leaders generally find that respect based on reverence is far more effective and reliable than motivation by fear. Leaders cannot retain the respect of their followers without showing due respect and reverence to them in return. It is sadly lacking in too many of our business and political leaders today.
It is absolutely true that people who are losing the capacity to feel reverence and awe are in danger of losing a great deal more. It is also true that reverence is most obvious when it is missing, and it is missing most often in people who are, or who think they are, exceptional above all others.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that actually celebrates the irreverent — as any perusal of a tabloid magazine, television program or the internet will attest. An irreverent soul is arrogant and shameless, unable to feel awe in the face of things higher or greater than self. The irreverent soul, orbiting in the center of his or her own universe, is so consumed with themselves and how they can draw attention to themselves that they seek out the lowest forms of behavior to shock society and disrespect others.
Reverence removes us from our self-centered, narcissistic view of the world. When we humbly realize that we are not the center of the universe, we can better engage with everyone and everything around us. From criminal justice reform to stewardship of the environment, from student-centric education to caring for veterans — reverence can create the space where insight and inspiration begin.
We can find and experience the power of reverence every day for it is all around us in meaningful rituals, in powerful moments, in simple pleasures and in the uniqueness of people. Reverence won’t be listed as the answer to what ails America, but it is a powerful principle and vital virtue for dealing with the challenges of our time.