Today a friend pointed out a distinction that totally escaped my notice.  She asked if I tolerated people or accepted them.  I always thought of myself as open to people different than I.  But upon thinking about it I realized that I was merely tolerating many of them, wishing that some of them might just go away and not continue to challenge me.

We’re all wired to tolerate, otherwise life would be unbearable.  We tolerate the heat and humidity, knowing that weather patterns will change.  We tolerate certain foods that are good for us but that we don’t really love.  We tolerate traffic jams for no good reason.  And we tolerate all kinds of people.

Lots of people make me uncomfortable.  I’ll tolerate being in their presence, all the while plotting in my mind for a graceful exit.  But if I look into the heart of the person, I find toleration can shift into appreciation, which is the doorway to acceptance.

Who do you merely tolerate, but don’t fully accept?  Here’s a partial list:

People of other races, ethnicities, language groups, and religions;
Gays and lesbians in their many personalities;
Transgender folk, both male to female and female to male;
The sloppy, overly-neat, bossy, passive, aggressive, opinionated, snobby, aesthetic, intellectual, uneducated;
Bikers, smokers, drug-addicted, alcoholics, jocks, non-athletic, angry, emotionally ill, handicapped,
Single parents, pregnant teens, welfare recipients, rich, poor, abusive, abused;
Politicians, oligarchs, corrupt cops and clergy, military personnel, NRA members, anti-gun activists;
Planned Parenthood, pro-lifers, members of the ACLU or NAACP, protesters, foreigners, native Americans;
Liberals, conservatives, greens, libertines, socialists, alt-rights.

Wow, we certainly have a lot of labels for people, especially when we merely tolerate them!

Tolerating gets us nowhere.  It allows us to think that, “One of these days I’ll be rid of ‘those’ people.  I’ll just put up with them for now, and then later I’ll have the world as I like it.”  Only we may, in our mere tolerance, fail to take seriously the message our opponents are giving us. Sometimes the message is benign: “This is just the way I am.”  Sometimes it’s truly sinister: “This is the way I am going to force you to be.”

German Jews of the last century had lived for generations simply as Germans.  They thought they were part of the German society and culture.  But they slowly realized under Hitler that they had merely been tolerated by their own people.  When the Nazis rounded them up their German neighbors did and said nothing in their defense.  They realized they had merely been tolerated by many of their neighbors, never fully accepted.  Mere toleration can lead to annihilation.

We can’t afford simply to be tolerant.  Only acceptance of others as they show up in the world will do.  It also means we include EVERYONE as equal members of our society and give them equal protection and rights. And when we are threatened by an individual or a group, we at least know that we’ve accepted their reality as they’ve defined it.  We then are able to formulate what effective action we need to take to resist the threat.  Merely tolerating someone will not make them disappear; accepting that they are dead serious in their position enables us to take their point of view seriously, and address them appropriately.  

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Art by Rodin
Copyright 2017 Michael Parise