Monday, July 13, 2009

Tolerating the Intolerant

Linda writes, “Do we tolerate intolerance? Do we draw a line and say we'll tolerate this but not that?” Excellent questions, and ones of importance to those of us who strive to express our spirituality in our daily lives.

Whatever example of narrow-mindedness I see before me, when I recognize that I have that same capacity, though possibly expressed in different forms, the fires of my own reaction calm and a subtle shift occurs.

Intolerance is, after all, part of the human repertoire. Remembering that, I will be less likely to vilify the other person for his or her intolerance, and more likely to recognize a kindred soul challenged by a very human tendency. Definitely a better stance from which to begin an interaction!

If I am unable to find such a starting point, perhaps intervening in any way will only make matters worse. No matter how perfect the language of my response, judgment will likely bleed through to fan the blaze, rendering that response ineffective. To meet someone’s intolerance with my own may only add more negativity to the mix. And as my Mama used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

So, yes, Linda, I think we do need to be tolerant of the intolerance of others. As Voltaire put it, “We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly.”

Yet recognizing the shared nature of our human flaws needn’t make us passive in the face of injustice or condoning of harm done another. Our interconnectedness, in fact, seems to require us to speak out. How do we respond skillfully and effectively to intolerance?

Obviously, there are no one size fits all answers, as situations and temperaments vary so greatly. Yet if we center ourselves, imagine our favorite saint or deity sitting on our shoulder, and ask for guidance and an opening~~if responding is, indeed, ours to do~~likely a path will show itself.

Consider these possibilities:
  • When intolerance seems to stem from frustration, as when a frazzled parent behaves harshly with a child in public, a simple show of empathy and support may do much to ease the situation.
  • When an acquaintance makes a judgmental comment, you could reply that there are other perspectives and offer to share yours. Or conversely, you could share a similar view you once held and what led you to rethink that position.
  • When the actions of an individual or an established institution tread on the rights of a person or group, you might seek opportunities to stand up for what you feel is right, possibly invoking that venerable tradition of non-violent resistance.
Clarity often takes time to rise in our awareness, and delaying our response may be preferable to reacting unconsciously. Seldom will we miss entirely a chance for a conscious response. Creating an opportunity to continue an interaction, days or even months later~~perhaps even sharing the evolution of our reactions~~demonstrates an interest that might very well have a powerful effect. And if we can't resume a particular interaction, likely we'll have a chance to put into practice what we've learned with someone new.

None of the above is meant to imply that we can’t be passionate in our response. Showing that we care deeply about an issue can often be inspirational. But if our goal is to have a positive effect, blame is better left behind.

Of course, no response of ours is guaranteed to make the slightest change in another. Changing others is not our job. We are called only to do what is ours to do, in the best manner possible. This includes, of course, managing our own penchant for intolerance.

As the clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Nothing dies so hard, or rallies so often, as intolerance.”

Transforming our own intolerance is our primary task. If we can also assist a fellow traveler in coming to see his or her own with a clearer eye~~either through witnessing our example, or in our skillful response to a shared interaction~~we have been a good friend, indeed.


Loanne Marie

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