Tolerance is a funny thing.
The word itself has multiple definitions: we speak of tolerance when we talk about people being able to ‘tolerate’ (we mean endure) pain and hardships.
We speak of tolerance when we talk about our bodies becoming ‘tolerant’ to certain climates or even substances.
The most common use for the word tolerance however, is defined like this:
‘sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own’ (Meriam Webster)
We expect tolerance and have become increasingly sensitive to the lack thereof. ‘Why can’t he be more tolerant?!’ (of my self-destructive habits and my paranoid approach to our relationship)
‘You can’t say that, where’s your tolerance?? He / she can do whatever she likes’ (of something someone has done to a neighbour)
And so on….
The more I think I about it, I can’t help but feel like we have completely misunderstood the meaning of the word. Do you know what I mean?
And more frustratingly so, I feel like we have in that become the most intolerant society.
Okay, let me rephrase that. We have become the most selectively tolerant society.
Let me explain:
We choose what we tolerate and what we don’t tolerate. Not based on universal morals but based on what fits into our own personal worldview.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but according to the definition outlined above, that’s not really tolerance is it?
Let me give you a couple of examples:
Case no. 1:
I’m a Christian. Very much so and have been for a long time. I have many friends who are not. Now, what’s interesting is, that whenever my view on things comes up in conversation, I somehow find myself on the judgement seat, criticised for breathing because being a christian everything I say must be old-school and therefore intolerant.
Even when the view I’ve expressed is not at all different from what everyone else has said or maybe my buddhist friend has just described with different words.
For some strange reason, my christian faith is always met with a sense of, what’s the word…intolerance.
See what I mean?
Case no. 2:
I LOVE music. I love all kinds of music. I can discuss Debussy one moment and get down to Chance The Rapper the next.
Don’t know why, it’s just how I work. My taste in music doesn’t fit into one particular mould. Not only do I love music, but it speaks to me deeply and brings me joy nothing else ever has.
To the point where Debussy’s Rivery carries me into other worlds as much as dancing at my favourite club in London with no care in the world and Raggae, dancehall and hip hop beats blasting from the speakers allows me to – for a moment – forget everything.
Isn’t it strange, how when I talk to the friends who are sold out to classical music and let’s say, indie, my love for Hip Hop is somehow looked down upon…
Or – coming back to matters of faith on case no.3 – even among my christian friends, I am seen as a bit of a weirdo. I go to Hillsong Conference (for those of you who don’t know what that is, imagine a massive arena, lots of lights and loud music) and Taize (for the rest of you, imagine the french country side, simplicity, 3-times-a-day liturgical prayer and lots of silence) in the space of a month and have the time of my life in BOTH places.
(No this is not turning into a case study of my weirdness)
I could go on and on.
The point I’m trying to make is this: somehow those of us who demand and promote tolerance the most, have become the most intolerant and I think I know why.
The answer seems so simple: we’ve somehow, somewhere along the line started to confuse tolerance with endorsement and have made it a condition to show whether we can like or even love someone.
We have made ‘tolerating’ someone or something equal with ‘endorsing’ or even ‘supporting’ what they do or believe in.
What do I mean by that? Pretty simple:
I do not endorse women having to wear burkas. It goes against my understanding and conviction of personal freedom and emancipation.
HOWEVER (put the stones back and hear me out) my faith and my convictions don’t allow me (internally) to not accept, embrace and love my sisters in burkas.
One has NOTHING to do with the other. I won’t argue with them about it, I won’t talk them out of it. Unless they specifically ask me my opinion, I will not engage in that subject, because it has nothing to do with whether I can or cannot love them, get to know them and share a world with them.
Another one: I do not endorse abortion.
HOWEVER (seriously, could you just drop those stones already?!) I would never in a million years judge a woman who chooses it. I will love her and support her as much as she wants or needs me to. As a matter of fact, I have close friends who have gone through with this decision and they remain my close friends until this day and I have no desire whatsoever to force my opinion on them.
What connects us is far more important and of more value than what separates us.
It seems to me, that for centuries, humanity has trained herself on focussing on what separates us.
Our aid has become conditional, our embracing of other cultures and ways of life (we’ll love you IF you become christian, muslim, atheist, homosexual, punk, gangster – you get the idea) but if you don’t we unfortunately can’t be around you and (in the not so rare extreme cases) might have to extinct you.
WHEN HAS THIS HAPPENED??? IS ANYONE ELSE DISTURBED BY THIS?
The sad reality is, that we don’t have to go as far as the big issues of religion, sexuality or political conviction.
The problem of tolerance being misunderstood affects us daily – and if we’re all honest we have all been victim AND perpetrator in this game…
Jesus didn’t endorse the tax collecter, but he ate with them anyway. Now before you give me your Sunday school explanation have you considered this: I don’t think Jesus went to dinner with the tax collectors thinking: man, this dinner better pay off! If he doesn’t start following my way by the fifth meal, I’m out. And this guy, he’s been coming to church and still acts like that?? Seriously, I’ll have to grab him later and tell him about everything that’s wrong with him…..
If you sit there thinking I’m bashing Christians now, you’re wrong. I can only give examples from the sphere I walk in, but I would bet a lot of money that it is no different in your world…
What are we going to do about this?
We have to start somewhere – it may be small beginnings, but we must start for the sake of our children. What world will they grow up in?
The way for any change to come to pass is one step at a time. One person at a time. One encounter at a time. One relationship at a time.
Every time we choose to NOT pass judgement, not force our opinions on one another but choose to look at each other as fellow humans. All on a journey, all working it out – without watering down our own convictions and beliefs, but knowing, that love and acceptance cannot depend on whether you see the world the way I do….
Imagine, all of us were to take this new (or old) meaning of tolerance and were to live by it.
Tolerance that is birthed out of love for people, out of an understanding that we’re all connected and that what connects us is bigger than what separates us, imagine that world…