On the surface “tolerance” sounds awesome. But despite its positive intent, we aren’t using it properly. Why is this? And what might be utilized to better effect?
You’ve Got To Live And Let Live
If you were born after the year… oh… I dunno… 2001… you’ve heard the term “tolerance”. A lot.
As a matter of fact, you probably even heard it while you were in the womb. Instead of putting headphones on your mother’s stomach and playing a little soothing Barry White, your father bent down and just whispered “tolerance” over and over again. As if it was “great white buffalo“.
There’s a reason for that. No, it’s not because Tolerance – the movie – came out the year prior (maybe in some remote cases it was). It’s because even though the idea of tolerance had been around since the word was invented, in a post-9/11 world, well… a lot of us judgy human beings realized maybe we should start really trying to be nice to each other.
And, jokes aside, that’s a great thing! In fact, that’s what we should have been doing all along isn’t it?
OMG we figured out the secret! Rejoice!
As a result, you see and hear it everywhere. “Being tolerant” is a kind of motto for the 21st century!
So, out of curiosity, I wanted to see if I could find some good definitions for “tolerance”.
Here’s one from Oxford:
The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
I like the sound of that… even if good ‘ol Oxford is showing uncharacteristic laziness by defining a word using itself…
I asked ChatGPT what tolerance was, and it summed it up this way:
Tolerance promotes peaceful coexistence, understanding, and empathy among people with differing backgrounds or ideologies.
And it didn’t even imply that tolerance is tolerance! Way to go!
Tolerance has kind of become a real world version of “this is the way“. It’s about accepting others for who they are – about learning to co-exist with them.
It’s basically the philosophy of “live and let live”. And how can you argue with that?
So what if Sally doesn’t agree with you? That’s okay. Let her be. Let her do her thang!
And because of that, two-plus decades in, everything is great and everyone loves each other.
How We Actually Use Tolerance
On the surface – and, heck, by definition – “tolerance” sounds awesome. The problem is, despite its intent (and I do believe that intent to be positive), we aren’t using “tolerance” the way it seems as though it was meant to be used.
For instance, when was the last time you used “tolerance” or “tolerate” in a positive way?
What I mean is, when you’ve used it in an actual real world situation, it’s sounded more like, “If Johnny doesn’t stop playing that out-of-tune clarinet upstairs I don’t think I’ll be able to tolerate it much longer!”
Or maybe, “That’s the last time I’ll tolerate that!”
Or, “I can no longer tolerate the position I’m in!”
Or any other number of declarations that suggest you’re dealing with someone or something you really don’t want to.
And usually with your fist in the air like “You maniacs! You blew it up!! Damn you!!”
Tolerance, then, feels like it has this inherently negative connotation. Like you’re bothered.
And what do you do when you’re bothered? Well… if you don’t outright lose your cool and take some kind of negative action against whatever is bothering you, you’re really more likely to push it away or get away from it, aren’t you?
That’s the second problem with “tolerance”. It’s dismissive. It’s disconnecting.
Sure, the suggestion is that you’re letting that other person be that other person – and that’s good…ish – because you’re not going to impede them or stop them or trample on their rights. But, let’s be honest, what you’re really doing is struggling to ignore their existence.
That is what “live and let live” really is, isn’t it? Letting Sally go do her thang… y’know… over there… where you don’t have to deal with her.
Meanwhile, because you’re allowing this offense to continue – whether in your presence or not – by golly you must be such a great person! Tell the whole world how you tolerated that other human being.
Seriously… say out loud that you tolerated another human being. That doesn’t sound like a positive thing altogether does it?
I found some other definitions of “tolerance”, like this one from Vocabulary.com:
If you’re tolerant it means that you accept people who are unlike you or put up with stuff you don’t like. If you let your roommate play the same awful ’80s mix over and over and don’t say anything, you’re probably a very tolerant person.
That just sounds so… passive. And depressing. It’s no wonder no one is all that eager to get to know anyone else and tend to push people away. It’s no wonder we don’t really know other people that well.
And by whose standards was that 80s mix awful?!
Sorry… got a bit precious there about 80s music. I love that stuff.
So maybe “tolerance” isn’t the term we should be using, because even though I think it means well, I don’t think we’re using it the way it was intended to be used.
Not only that, we seem to use it as a way to dismiss others, push them away, and then think we’ve done something wonderful and noble on top of it!
Well then… if “tolerance” isn’t the way, then what is?
That Extra Step
We know what we are trying to do with “tolerance”. But for whatever reason, that word just really doesn’t work. And the way we use it really doesn’t fit with most accepted definitions of it.
So if the way we use “tolerance” is negative, disconnecting, dismissive and passive, what we really need is a word that implies the opposite. One that is used in the opposite ways.
You may recall a while back I wrote an article about the purpose-driven nature of Compassion. I talked about how – in using it – we are making a real, honest effort to Love through Knowing. It’s about “coming to”, and not “running from”. It’s about embracing another human being, not dismissing them to the “over there”.
It implies an extra step past the definition of “tolerance”. It practically compels you to reach out and not push away.
Sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
And nearly every other definition you find is going to present Compassion as “connecting by identifying with another person”, “to suffer together”, or “a wish to help”. You can see, then, where Compassion – even by its definition – is active, emotionally connective, and inherently about sharing.
By comparison, most definitions I’ve found of “tolerance” (even when they do mention Compassion) don’t get anywhere near this concept of “emotional connection”.
Much like how “tolerance” is used in a way that doesn’t necessarily match up with how it is defined, I think Compassion can be utilized in a similar fashion. But, instead of compromising its own definition, I see Compassion as being used in a way that intensifies and multiplies its intent. By its own defining nature, I believe it can be more.
What “tolerance” really seems to miss, or lack, is that spiritual thing that connects all of humanity. That something more that really seeks to bind us together.
Love Beget Love
The problem with “tolerance” is that it really doesn’t ask you to do any work. Compassion already seems to ask that of us, but when you add this spiritual layer on top of it – the one that seeks to connect and bind individuals together – you have something that not only seeks to accomplish what “tolerance” really meant to do, you’re practically compelled to do it.
I don’t think we’re here to “live and let live” – I think we’re here to “Love beget Love”. Or, in other words, lead with Love, (which requires Knowledge and connection) and, in doing so, bring about more Love. We’re supposed to connect and embrace, run to and not from.
In a way, I think we’re here to Love, not despite another’s flaws (or the things we disagree with, if you prefer), but because of. We’re supposed to Love their humanity. The same humanity we have in ourselves. We’re supposed to find and appreciate what, in the end, makes us all so very much the same. That humanness of who we are.
Certainly, that isn’t easy. It’s hard for me, too.
But I think this is how we truly do what “tolerance” intended – an illuminated path on the way to experiencing Joy.
Compassion is the way to do all of that. And maybe more.
What are some situations where you’ve “tolerated” something? Can you remember how the expression of the thought moved through your mind – what your inner voice said – or what you might have said out loud as a result? Did it feel negative or positive? Where might you see where Compassion could be a better way of connecting with other individuals? Do you see Compassion as a better alternative to Tolerance? Share your thoughts and experiences below!
You can also share your story and chat with the Ender Bowen Community on Discord by Clicking Here.