An Individual Approach to Tolerance
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Article ID: 13645
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Rowena Grey
Posted: February 7th. 2010
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Song of the Young War God
I have been to the end of the earth.
I have been to the end of the waters.
I have been to the end of the sky.
I have been to the end of the mountains.
I have found none that were not my friends. - -Traditional Navaho song (1)
How do you define “tolerance”? When you think of the word, what immediately springs to mind? These days I’m more inclined to envision a gathering of many different faiths among which individuals may freely mingle without fear of judgment or misunderstanding, but that is simply because of the (fortunate) circumstance in which I now find myself. I have placed myself there deliberately by virtue of making a particular decision – one that has changed my life and will continue to refine my perspective as I grow to understand the shape of my new role. Though I will return to my description of that decision – and my perceived role – at a later time, let us for now consider the question of tolerance and some of its varied dimensions.
After being asked to compose this piece, I found myself thinking about the word itself as though a complete stranger to the term – as though I had never encountered it before. Have you ever done that? Have you ever chosen a word and set yourself apart, imagining that you were seeing it for the first time? The shapes and shades of meaning do not fade, but are seen afresh; as an individual renews his or her perspective of the definition (s) of a single word, the entire shape of the matter changes. It may even become something deeply affecting for the questioner, as has been the case here.
I could just go ahead and list the definitions for you, thereby possibly broadening your perspective with a purely intellectual approach. I could talk about how the meanings flow and change between different contexts – how a religious studies major might articulate it as opposed to a medical practitioner, for example. I will actually be listing several definitions here, but in order to demonstrate just how applicable even this simple question can be to a single life, I choose to follow those definitions with some descriptions of my own experience.
I have learned to look at “tolerance” in a variety of ways, and can even divide its application particularly among the major periods of my development. I have prefaced each section with a quotation, a definition, or both.
From birth to age twelve.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things. -- 1 Corinthians 13:11, Holy Bible, KJV
Tolerance (n.) -- the power of enduring or resisting the action of a drug, poison, etc.: a tolerance to antibiotics. (2)
I almost died when I was six months old.
I don’t know if it was because of “tolerance” per se, but when the doctors injected me with a water-based corticosteroid to stop my infantile spasms, it raced right through my body and I started to turn blue. They next chose to administer a gel-based solution, which worked more slowly and was quite effective. My parents were more or less sent home with needles, medication and instructions, as far as I know. For some months to follow, they gave me a regular dose of that corticosteroid to keep my spasms at bay.
As a toddler, I was given a daily dose of medication to control my seizures. I had a genetic disorder, and epilepsy was a secondary issue. Though they had to go through a couple of drugs to find the right one, I ended up being on anti-seizure medications even beyond this first period of my life. At the time, “tolerance” was just an abstract concept for me, a word I doubtless first encountered in connection with medicine. I likely didn’t even know what it meant the first time I heard it spoken. All the same, I went to the hospital at least once a year to have my blood medication levels checked and, likely, to ensure that my body had not developed a tolerance for the dosage that would render it less effective.
During this entire period, I was taking some type of anti-epileptic, but the seizures weren’t really a problem for me. My difficulty lay in interacting with my peers. As is often the case with children, I felt more confident while not in school. My most special memories from this period are those of church activities and times with family. I began to understand that I was very different from other children while still in primary school, and the teasing that began during this time would persist in some form even throughout high school. Thus, my earliest personal acquaintance with “tolerance” was “intolerance”.
Years thirteen to twenty-two.
Tolerance (n.) -- the act or capacity of enduring; endurance: My tolerance of noise is limited.
By the time I was thirteen, I was pretty fed up with getting teased by classmates. By sixteen, I was kicking around the idea that I was some sort of genetic accident. In no way did this have anything to do with my parents, or even stem purely from other people. No – more than anything, it was my reaction to what surrounded me, and my wondering whether or not I’d have been better off without that gel. I felt like some kind of monster.
Though I knew perfectly well what tolerance was at this point, I didn’t exercise it very capably myself. I had very few friends in high school by choice and, though I dated, didn’t really feel all that attractive. Neither did I have any time whatsoever for people who were shallow enough not to look beneath the surface.
I think poetry saved me in a lot of ways; I began exploring lyrical poetry at age thirteen, and had been using it to keep my thoughts in order. All the same, if someone had asked me for a definition of “tolerance” at that point, I suppose I might have suggested they think in terms of “pain tolerance”, or the aforementioned medical definition. I made it through my high school years because I was able to preserve a sense of being special, of being different in a way that helped me see things others couldn’t perceive. I was able to see underneath the “public faces” of my peers, and was unaware of anyone else who could do such a thing.
One of my “friends” walked away from me in high school because others were laughing at her for being around me. I’d known she had issues with her self-esteem – and so did I – but I never saw that coming before it happened. I can’t tell you how much it hurt… and so I remained somewhat apart even from those relationships that remained throughout high school. From the time she walked away from me in the gym, I don’t think I really trusted anyone, not even myself, until I entered university – and that includes the short time I was married, which ended because of a mistake I made. All I will say for that – for I have forgiven myself – is that my mistake stemmed from a breach of trust.
Years twenty-two to twenty-six.
To Him that was Crucified
My spirit to yours dear brother,
Do not mind because many sounding your name do not understand you,
I do not sound your name, but I understand you,
I specify you with joy O my comrade to salute you, and to salute
those who are with you, before and since, and those to come also,
That we all labor together transmitting the same charge and succession,
We few equals indifferent of lands, indifferent of times,
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes, allowers of all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the
disputers nor any thing that is asserted,
We hear the bawling and din, we are reach'd at by divisions,
jealousies, recriminations on every side,
They close peremptorily upon us to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and
down till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races,
ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers as we are. - -Walt Whitman (“Leaves of Grass”)
Tolerance (n.) – interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.
At age twenty-two, I entered university, and remained there for the next four years. I had previously attempted attaining a nursing degree through a community college, but found myself unable to complete the course due to a serious overload of stress. After I withdrew, I worked for two years as a certified nursing assistant before entering a four-year school to obtain a bachelor’s degree. It was during this time that I first truly encountered tolerance within a religious context.
I grew up Episcopalian despite being baptized Roman Catholic, and had never really explored any religious ideas outside of the Christian faith or even outside my denomination before entering university. I was introduced to the Wiccan religion almost immediately – literally within days of my arrival at the university – and it led me to recognize a variety of things I had previously been unable to articulate. As I learned about Wicca, I found myself drawn by it – by its promise of the sacred feminine, its ability to answer longings I hadn’t even recognized within myself, and its view of the self as Divine.
What was more, I was learning about still different ways of thinking, new traditions and new levels of understanding. My concept of myself as “an accident” slowly faded, along with my lack of trust in myself. I came to recognize and understand the unique beauty of each person, as well as the purely individual relationship each person cultivates with their personal Divine.
Though the learning process was by no means a rapid one, it was a steady evolution that allowed me to forgive myself for past mistakes. It also built my confidence and my understanding in a great many ways, just as it continues to do today, though I have changed a great deal since that time. I have also learned the value of building friendships that will no doubt last beyond this lifetime.
Years twenty-seven to thirty-two.
Truth is One
People worship God according to their tastes and temperaments. The mother cooks the same fish differently for her children, that each one may have what suits his stomach. For some she cooks the rich dish of pilau. But not all the children can digest it. For those with weak stomach she prepares soup. Some, again, like fried fish or pickled fish. It depends on one’s taste…
I see people who talk about religion constantly quarreling with one another. Hindus, Musselmans, Brahmos, Saktas, Vaishnavas, Saivas all quarrel with one another. They haven’t the intelligence to understand that He who is called Krishna is also Siva and the Primal Shakti, and that it is He, again, who is called Jesus and Allah. “There is only one Rama and He has a thousand names.”
Truth is one; only It is called by different names. All people are seeking the same Truth; the variance is due to climate, temperament, and name. A lake has many ghats. From one ghat the Hindus take water in jars and call it jal. From another ghat the Mussulmans take water in leather bags and call it pani. From a third the Christians take the same thing and call it “water.” Suppose someone says that the thing is not jal but pani, or that it is not pani but water, or that it is not water but jal. It would indeed be ridiculous. But this very thing is at the root of the friction among sects, their misunderstandings and quarrels. This is why people injure and kill one another, and shed blood, in the name of religion. But this is not good. Everyone is going toward God. They will all realize Him if they have sincerity and longing of heart. - - Ramakrishna (3)
I moved to Massachusetts the year after I graduated from college, and remained there for five years. While living there, I had my tolerance tested in a great many ways, not the least of which was religious. I believe I not only managed to come through it intact, but in certain respects stronger than I would ever have expected.
You will recall my mentioning that I could “see within” people – that I could perceive what lay beneath the faces they chose to display to the public. Those five years tested that to such a degree and were a source of such pain as to overwhelm me almost completely. When I finally reached my breaking point, I ended up having that ability locked down voluntarily, so as to give my mind a rest and allow me to view things more toward the surface, simply because I felt I would have otherwise lost my sanity.
I won’t go into the main source of that pain. It has no real relevance to this discussion, and would only be a gratuitous re-hashing of issues already resolved. I will say, though, that I lost both grandmothers while still in Massachusetts, one of whom was part of my original inspiration for leading a spiritual life. I also learned to see the beauty in a mindset I had never before encountered, and the commonalities I found helped me stand firm through a situation from which many others might well have fled.
My practice of tolerance during this period was thus not only religious. I did end up praying the Catholic rosary and participating in an elemental circle within hours of each other just before Nana passed away, though. It was a very painful, though incredibly magical, experience – and one that paved the way for assuming a role I am only now coming to understand.
A Life-Changing Decision: Now
I give myself the answers to my prayers,
for I am all that I am.
I am a representative of the divine.
all the events of your life
are there because you have
drawn them there.
What you choose
to do with them is
is up to you. - -Richard Bach (4)
I came home to North Carolina about four months ago. Since that time, I have recognized and approached personal obstacles that have been hindering me for nearly as long as I can remember.
One of those obstacles is the fear of being my entire self. I am a rather good “shapeshifter” – I am able to adapt myself to different environments and adjust in various situations. This ability became a particular hindrance, though, because of my historic tendency to use it for external validation in romantic relationships.
I have only recently come to the understanding that this pattern manifested for me as early as high school. You may remember my saying that I felt unattractive, even though I dated. Those relationships – and almost all of the relationships that I had once out of high school – were far more complicated than they should have been due to my inability to express my truest and most complete self while in them. (Those that weren’t were either short-term relationships or relationships that ended up being friendships instead.) All of my mistakes – all of my perceived problems with intimacy, with communication, with shared understanding – stemmed from my reluctance to see my entire self as attractive to others.
Now that I recognize this, I have stopped shifting to suit others. I’m tired of doing it, for one thing, but that’s not the only reason for my decision. It’s also disrespectful to other people, to me – and, by extension, to the Divine. As a spiritual seeker, I have no wish to limit what I can learn from others by limiting what I show them. Accordingly, I have made the decision to live in service to my personal Divine – the Lord and Lady – because that is something I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember, and is the image of myself I consider most personally complete. I seek no relationship outside of my spiritual commitment, and will not for the foreseeable future.
In doing this, of course, I realize that I will be called upon to assist others in a number of different ways, even as I explore and refine my own path. This will no doubt prove to be something of a challenge, as I am reacquainting myself with many aspects of my own spiritual practice. Nevertheless, I have faith that I will progress even as I help others find their own clarity.
Though I have been forced to examine the issue from a variety of angles, I have come to understand tolerance as being a willingness to learn from every available opportunity, whether or not it is in accordance with your personal worldview. From this point forward, I believe that is the only definition I will truly need.
(1) Harvey, p. 7. For complete bibliographic information for this and all following page references, see “Works Cited”.
(2) Definition of ”tolerance” from Dictionary.com. See “Works Cited”.
(3) Harvey, pp. 52-53.
(4) Bach, p. 144.
1.Bach, Richard. Illusions. New York: Dell Publishers, 1989.
2.Folsom, Ed and Price, Kenneth M., eds. To Him That Was Crucified. © 1995-2009 The Walt Whitman Archive. 8 November 2009 http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/214
3.Harvey, Andrew (ed.) . The Essential Mystics: Selections from the World’s Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997.
4.Stead, L. N. Translations. Quote from poem composed by the author of this article.
5. “tolerance”. Dictionary.com online definition, 2009. 8 November 2009 http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tolerance
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