Tolerance in Difficult Times

Traditional teachings focus so often on love and its transformative spirit that we can overlook a more basic and fundamental power—the tolerant heart.

Human differences are enormous: our rhythms, what our bodies like, our aesthetic sense, our emotions, our fears, the way we move and speak and love and rest. There are vast differences of race, culture, class, and values. Without tolerance there is no ground for relationship, no possibility of intimacy. Without tolerance, family life can be unbearable. Temperament and personality all differ dramatically. Without tolerance we would have a society of perpetual conflict, a world of sectarianism and tribalism, of warfare and genocide.

We don’t have to like, let alone love those we tolerate. The truth is that even spiritual teachers do not always like one another, nor do they necessarily get along. Many respected Zen masters and swamis, ajahns and sheikhs, lamas and rabbis have powerful disagreements. Some have a distaste for one another’s teaching or style. Yet the wise among them embody a genuine tolerance, knowing that another person’s reasons may be invisible to us, that another person’s way is as worthy of respect as our own.

Tolerance does not mean acceptance of what is harmful. Just as detachment and numbing can be spiritually misused to hide from our feelings, so tolerance can be misused if we avoid seeing the truth or fail to take a necessary stand. Tolerance does not mean turning a blind eye to abuse. To prevent further suffering, we may need to respond with great strength. But when our heart is connected with our actions, even this strength can be combined with compassion and understanding.

We so easily become judgmental of one another. Sometimes the closer we are to a person, the stronger our judgment and frustration can become. That is why family is one of the final frontiers of spiritual development.

Family is a mirror. In our spouses, our lovers, our parents and children we find our needs and hopes and fears writ large. Intimate relations reach in and touch our history without anesthesia. The wounds we carry, the longings we have to be nourished are right on the table. They need to be respected. That is why even in our own families, to say that we love one another underneath it all is not enough. We also need to be tolerant and respectful of one another. And while this is true in our families, it is equally true in the broader family of our society, especially in difficult times.

Tolerance and blamelessness grow when we see the remarkable and strange qualities in each of the lives we touch.

Find Peace


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