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Talking Tolerance
Nov 1, 2011

Tolerance is a curious word. It indicates an ability to bear up with a certain amount of variation or difference. Tolerance, we think, is a virtue to be attained. In dialogue, we see it as our ability to be free of bigotry. It says we can "endure" difference.

How generous of us. How condescending, actually! It implies that I can bear up under the difference which is exemplified in the other: I won't criticize you openly or make comments, but deep down, I know you to be "different" and myself to be virtuous and probably superior. I may catch myself, when speaking of someone I actually do not like, saying politely: "Well, she's different." With that comment, I am off the hook. I refrain from telling you I reject this person. But "different" here may support a polite tolerance, yet it harbors an inner rejection.

So can we count tolerance a virtue? Perhaps developing tolerance is a stepping stone to something deeper? It might be the beginning of wisdom and exemplify a necessary patience with what feels painful, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, possibly frightening, in fact "foreign" to us. "Unfamiliar," literally means: Not of my family. I am ill at ease with this because I do not know it. It is not part of my family, my tribe, my beliefs, my language, my religion, my race. In the spirit of tolerance, I might begin to open myself to tasting, hearing, learning something about that which is not "ours." It is a beginning, but it still holds fast to the comfort of what it knows and only tolerates what it cannot fully accept.

Still, we have all had the expansive experience of traveling outside our zones of comfort and making a new relationship. We have launched a friendship with someone who seems unlike us.

An obviously poor man has taken charge of the garden plot next to mine in our neighborhood community garden. Perhaps he is homeless? He rattles up to the garden on a dilapidated bicycle. His clothes are worn and he has a scruffy look. His nails are dirty and that might be because he has been working his plot. I sense a certain unease in myself as we scratch the soil in our plots. Part of me fears him. That might be because I feel guilty about the growing number of homeless who make camps under the overpasses in my neighborhood. I can let my mind race with objections: They might bring disease. They certainly clutter the surroundings with litter. What if, in their need, they take what they want from yards and sheds? And the police told us recently they found a cache of machetes, sticks and knives in the park behind us. Oh, I can build dungeons in the sky as fast as anyone.

But to be honest, deep down, I would dread being homeless myself and in this economy... my mind races. How much of this is all our responsibility? Other members of the community garden, I notice, walk well out of his way. Sometimes they whisper to one another making comments about their discomfort.

But this is, after all, a Community garden! What does that really mean. If you sign up and pay the nominal fee to tend a plot and use the garden tools, this man has a right to be here. So the gardeners put up a front of tolerance. "We shall see. We'll give him a chance."

Tolerance invites us to stand before the unfamiliar and allow-but it still has no relationship to the ability to be empathic. Empathy is a vulnerable frame of being. It is to feel with what is "other" or different. Tolerance does not yet stand in the shoes of the other, knowing exactly what it feels like to be that person, living into a sense of that person's culture, situation, history, biology, with those talents, bearing those wounds or offering those gifts.

Empathy would be the greater quality to embrace and cultivate in ourselves if we want to conduct real dialogue. Empathy is a quality that comes with maturity, practice, humility, a vulnerable openness and, of course, prayer. There is nothing guarded, "tolerant" or superior about it.

"Hey!" Two of us greet the man one morning as we hoe our plants. What's your name? What have you just planted there? I make a point of walking over there and taking responsibility for my own feelings, I try to make contact with the fellow devoid of my prejudices. I am not an extroverted, chatty person to begin with, so it takes a concerted effort on my part to walk over there, discuss our gardens, and share our experiences.

Dempsey is his name. He does indeed live at the homeless shelter downtown and bikes up hill here to work his plot. He has lost the place he once lived. There is a story hiding in him. Turns out he knows quite a bit about the soil and gardening. He introduces me to his beloved collards. I show him my chard and spinach. Eventually we share some of our produce and though I do not take a shine to his collards, no matter how I try, I feel somehow honored by his generosity.

He has a plan. Even a vision. If he can grow enough produce, he will bring it to the kitchens at his shelter. As a kid, he had gardens which he and his mom tended. When everything in a row turns ripe and ready at once, it is quite an armful and he would like to make a contribution to his shelter. He has more plans. There is some land at the back of the shelter that, if he can convince them, he would like to turn into gardens that the homeless can help cultivate. Right now it is just a dumping ground for old bottles and litter.

"Of course, we'd need to contain the kitchen waste for compost first to get some soil. Gardening is more about making good soil than about growing plants!"

Before long, I am hearing amazing things from Dempsey. What if I had avoided him in my fear, guilt, and prejudice?

I think about my feelings against his reality. When we were young and growing up, we all made choices: We chose this over that, we chose right over wrong. We chose right over left and light over dark. We learned not to talk to strangers or to walk in certain neighborhoods. All the world is split in halves and with our choices we made judgments to match. We learned to define ourselves in a certain way, convinced that we have chosen the better part and have left "the other," the misguided, the sinful, the messy, and unenlightened behind. This is how we formed our identity. With this we were approved of by our families and accepted by our tribe. It was, perhaps, a necessary developmental process.

In time, we may become so comfortable in this identity that it takes wisdom and maturity to discover that the world isn't so black and white as we would like to define it. Our "black and white mentality" is often acted out literally. Here in America, we have suffered and visited great suffering on people of color deeming white to be more worthy than black. Getting stuck at this stage of development has literally given advantage, education and wealth to whites and this on the backs of those we first imported as slaves to our country and then continued to enslave in our intolerance, injustice and rejection.

Everywhere in the world, we have seen these simplistic conflicts bloom and fester causing injustice, war, and dreadful human misery. Tolerance, then, might be the first step to healing an unjust society but then, it has to develop further, into a true virtue.

Empathy-that true virtue-allows us to viscerally feel with the other and learn a third way which stands over and above the simplicity of a merely "black and white" mentality. Perhaps fundamental rights and wrongs may well be necessary to growing up and learning to become someone.

But fundamentalism is essentially an unripe process in becoming whole, holy, and healthy. It is a spiritual and psychological immaturity. Becoming whole, empathic with "the other" and more than merely "tolerant" of the other requires that we make friends with the deepest part of our own inner selves first. The dark aspects of our own unconscious, which lie under our conscious choices and awareness, are alive and well and sometimes pop out in actions, prejudices, paranoia, and selfish behaviors that actually shock us, surprising ourselves! Where did THAT come from? The impromptu snub? That slip-of-the-tongue? Getting to know what you'd rather repress in yourself takes that washing, even symbolic washing, which takes off the accretions of only "looking good." To reach into our depth we ask for the graces of God and the courage to know ourselves.

Dempsey proves to be a gifted gardener. Unlike many of us city-slickers who find the idea of gardening a nice, romantic concept, Dempsey knows how to lean into his work and stick with it. He puts a hand to our compost pile and gives me information on the chemistry of compost. He LOVES the compost. And I begin to be enamored with the beauty of this transforming pile of brush and leaves as they become mulch and then good, black earth. It takes time. It takes patience. The vegetable scraps and brush, the kitchen scraps that we reject and find, in fact, revolting as they mold and decompose, become, in time, something so rich and beautiful that I hold a palm full in my hand and run it through my fingers. Dempsey laughs at me. He knows that I have come around. I encourage him to share his knowledge at our garden meetings. Dempsey becomes a valuable member of the garden. And he becomes a friend.

Like the compost, I dig deep into my own unconscious and all that I have deemed objectionable, I take into my awareness. I get to know myself a little more. I get to appreciate what I otherwise throw out and bury out of sight-out of my consciousness-and I find it necessary as the very "ground of my being." It is a spiritual, a holy exercise. Also the parts of society that I might only tolerate, I take into my awareness and with prayer and God's grace, I watch the rejected become a valuable source and a piece of God's holy plan and puzzle.

Richard Rohr, OFM put it this way:

With prayer we change sides from the inside-from a power position to the position of vulnerability and solidarity, which gradually changes everything. Because now we are allowing ourselves to change and grow!
Once we are freed from our paranoia, from the narcissism that thinks we are the center of the world, or from our belief that thinks our rights and dignity have to be defended before other people's rights and dignity, only then can we finally live and act with any justice or truth. Once these blockages are taken away from us-and that is what prayer does-then we just have to be offered a few guiding statements on social justice or other thorny issues-and we tend to get it for ourselves. We start being drawn by love...

For it is common practice in the human condition to take everything we fear, hate, deny about ourselves and "throw it in the waste bin." We have, unwittingly, put "the other" in that same place of rejection and waste.

On the other hand, we also project everything we admire onto "the hero" as well. The adolescent makes heroes of the athlete, the rock star, the film star, the super model and decorates her bedroom with their posters. Meanwhile, the adults lean on their gurus, their preachers, their wise men, their favorite politicians and hope to vote in their hero as president and savior-of-the-nation. Our heroes, just like our shadow figures about whom we are passionate, are really aspects of ourselves which we are invited to come to know. These are abilities, virtues, talents, beauties, braveries, and wisdoms that we have not yet met in our own deepest selves but have "found" by projecting them on our heroes. What national leader can be the savior that delivers us from debt, from our enemies, from hunger? Over and over and at every election, we project on "the man who would be king," and within months, because he is merely human, the populace has become disenchanted if not duped!

Samuel, in Hebrew Scripture, warns of turning away from God in favor of a king (1 Samuel 8). Israel wanted a leader like the other nations. But Samuel issues a final warning (1 Samuel 12:14) "If God's people will remain faithful to God's Commandments" and keep God as their ruler.

When our loves and our hates are visceral and passionate, we must take these deep emotions as invitations to examine our SELVES first. By truly "knowing ourselves" deeply, we are able to develop empathy-knowing "the other." Then we learn to accept the dark and light aspect of our deepest self. We learn to embrace everyone. Our tolerance becomes empathy, even love! Rumi's teaching often showed that love and empathy is the very path to spiritual growth and insight. Broadly tolerant of every person and all faiths he says:

Whoever you may be, come
Even though you may be
An infidel, a pagan, or a fire-worshipper, come
Our brotherhood is not one of despair
Even though you have broken
Your vows of repentance a hundred times, come.

Life is certain to dish up for us, family members, neighbors, people, situations, religions, countries-myriad experiences that are really invitations to rattle us out of our cozy dualistic and judgmental lives. May we grow surely and bravely from being merely tolerant into fully human beings who are steeped in empathy. Every dualist split that rends us apart personally and tears us one from the other would be healed. The same God reigns over and above us all. The same God guides us. The same God loves us all. The same God is the very ground of our being. Tolerance is only a start on the path to love and empathy.

Gertrud Mueller Nelson is an author, artist and retired teacher. She has illustrated and written nine books. She lives in California.