There’s a difference between respect and reverence.
Showing respect involves being considerate and tolerant of other people. In short, treating other people the way you would want to be treated. But reverence is another thing entirely.
Reverence is “a feeling of profound awe and respect and often love.” So while most well-mannered people display respect fairly often, reverence is a much rarer thing. Therefore, deciding for whom, in what situations, and how to show that reverence is a serious matter for many people. If you or your family aren’t among them, it’s a worthwhile discussion to have.
Seeing what real reverence looks like is perhaps easiest when you’re not expecting to see it. That’s exactly what happened to an American businessman in Bangkok, Thailand.
Jeff Null and seven members of his team were nearing the end of a three-week stay in Bangkok. After indulging in the local cuisine for the entire trip, they opted for more familiar food at the Hard Rock Café that night.
Walking out of the restaurant after dinner, they were hit by a wall of heat, sound, and smells at the center of a city of eight million people. At around thirteen degrees north latitude, Bangkok is deep in the tropics and has an average high temperature of over ninety degrees Fahrenheit year round.
And the Hard Rock is on one of the busiest streets in the city. Jeff explains, “The thing you’ve got to imagine about this street is that it’s about as wide as a five-lane road in the U.S., but with about twelve lanes of cars in it. They’re all just crammed together end-to-end with motorcycles weaving in and out of what little space is left between them. And the street vendors are fighting for the attention of every passerby. It’s hot. And it’s incredibly loud.”
Down the street, the group saw a pedestrian bridge they could use to get back to their hotel. After navigating the thick foot traffic on the sidewalk, they came to the base of the bridge. But as they started to enter it, a man stepped in front of them and blocked their way. As Jeff recalls, “He was this tiny little man, perhaps no more than eighty-five pounds. And he stood there with his hands stretched out to each side, shaking his head, clearly not wanting us to walk across.”
But Jeff’s group didn’t speak Thai, and this man had very little English. The only thing that was clear was that he was adamant that they not enter the bridge. Weary and just wanting to get back to their hotel, the group began to get agitated.
“Eventually,” Jeff explained, “the man pulled out a bill from his wallet and started pointing to it.”
“I think he wants a bribe to cross the bridge,” one of the group offered. But they soon determined that wasn’t the case. He was pointing to something on the money. Finally, as he began to recall some English, they heard the word “king.” Indeed, there was a picture of the king of Thailand on the money. So they parroted back to him the words, “the king, the king.” And as they did, they started looking around and began to notice some activity. When they finally put it all together, they realized the king of Thailand was coming.
“We’d not seen the king, so we started getting excited and loud ourselves. But after a few moments of that, this little man turned to us, now with more full grasp of his English. He looked right at us and said in a commanding voice,
Silence, please. My king is coming.
“We turned around to look and sure enough, the road was now cleared, and everybody as far as we could see was bowed down, head to the ground. And it. Was. Silent.” The group watched as a motorcade of official cars moved through the opening in the center of the street. As it passed, activity started to return to normal. “Then this little man turned to us and bowed and let us go through.”
Jeff stood there in awe at the situation that had just unfolded in front of him. It was the most potent and sincere display of reverence he had ever witnessed. But to fully appreciate the event, however, it’s important to understand three things.
First, this man was not a police officer or one of the king’s guards. He appeared to Jeff to be a common citizen, and a modestly dressed one at that.
Second, Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with 93 percent of the population claiming to practice it. The position of your head and your feet, therefore, has deep symbolic meaning. To have pedestrians walking over the bridge with their feet above the head of the king passing underneath would be grossly insulting.
And third, reigning since 1946, King Rama IX was the world’s longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history (a position he held for 70 years until his death in October, 2016).
When I asked Jeff to explain the significance and meaning this event has to him, he shared that it’s something he reflects on often. Once a month or so, the man’s words, “Silence, please. My king is coming,” ring in his ears.
“First,” he said, “I am fascinated by the resolve of this ordinary Thai man who stood up to a group of foreigners, pushed through the difficulty of translation, and eventually made his position clear. He was clearly motivated by a huge amount of respect and love for his king, enough to overcome his natural Buddhist tendency to get along with everybody. What would my life be like if I lived like this guy? What would the world be like?
“Second, I am fascinated by the fact that the Thai people believed the king was worthy of such reverence. And in large part, he deserved it. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, so he wasn’t the head of the government. But he was widely credited with using his power to help the poor and needy. Like the first point, what would the U.S. be like if we had that kind of unanimity of belief toward anything or anyone?
“Finally, my life is full of distraction and noise. Every Sunday morning I go to church and sing songs and listen to lessons and recommit myself to put God first. And very quickly thereafter I tend to push him to the background as I deal with all of that distraction and noise. A big chunk of reviewing this story with myself is an attempt to be silent and listen for God. To remember what my real priorities should be.”
All of Jeff’s questions are important ones, very much worthy of consideration. And when you’re done, ask yourself, “Whom do I revere?”
As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
1. Explain in your own words the difference between respect and reverence.
2. How does one show reverence? What are some examples?
3. What is it that makes someone worthy of being shown reverence?
4. Who do you revere?
5. What are some examples of things some people revere that you think are not worthy of reverence?
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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