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Friday, January 8, 2010

Tolerance is one of the hardest virtues to develop. It stems from an attitude of being fair and objective -- not only objective about those things we initially trust but also objective about those things we tend to distrust. True, it is natural to fear anything in direct opposition to ourselves, especially when we are wholly committed to our productive lifestyles. So, significant risk is involved in practicing tolerance since we must free ourselves from our own bigotry to practice the highest degree of toleration. But, we like to think of ourselves as unbiased, free of all prejudices. But are we?

Like a kid facing a portion of spinach for the first time, we frequently object to a foreign smell, texture, or look. Instinctively, we just know the first taste will be horrible. We continually distrust many things in our lives we sense are potentially harmful. And, as a defense mechanism, this initial conception of danger can keep us from harm in questionable circumstances that require further investigation.That defense is a definite benefit. But, sometimes we don't tolerate something "just because." In the words of the child, "That green stuff looks disgusting!" The child has a frame of reference built in by nature.

But, like the kid staring at the abhorrent greens, we usually have someone close encouraging us to experience "new tastes" in life that will refine our palates and expand our narrow attitudes. The first taste of the spinach can be, in a word, "disgusting." Only through significance reintroduction to the food does a potential appreciation develop. How many times did you try many of the foods you love as an adult before the taste became favorable? Oysters? Cauliflower? Beets? Corned Beef?

Tolerance is required to permit others to gain our deepest trust. I learned this early as a young teacher. Fresh from college and faced with potential class disruptions, I became quick to judge my chances of getting along with a student. I often relied on my first impressions to lead me to snap judgments. After all, without adequate classroom control, I would face non-renewed after my first year. Non-renewal was definitely not an option.

I can't tell you how many times I would judge students: see (in my perception) something I didn't like, hear a rumor I didn't appreciate, or misjudge a questionable comment. Of course, the offending student would immediately enter my "outlaw" brain file, stereotyped as someone who meant to take away my livelihood. I became the intolerant judge out of my own unfounded prejudices and fears. I thought I was the master of my eventual fate.

But, just as many times as I employed my quick judgments, I found these judgments to be totally wrong. I ate a lot of "crow" until I found tolerance, even of terribly problematic situations, required me to understand innumerable gut-wrenching points of view. People, even high school delinquents, had hearts and minds that were in various stages of formation. Eighteen chronological age might mean age twelve in maturity and mental development.

In their complicated lives away from the classroom, not all teens practiced due respect, nor did all teens receive due respect. At school, many disruptive students were starving for attention or acquiring attention in dangerous ways. Don't misunderstand me, most of my students still considered me strict, but I began to listen and reason with them. All of them sought to be given a measure of mutual esteem from adults -- the tough, the shy, the clown, the showoff, the jock, the popular -- everyone, including me, needed a daily dose of "atta boy" or an occasional "you're better than that."

Before long, I realized that a student who was stepping up and attempting to stretch his/her potential to achieve a "D" was as valuable in class as a student who constantly nailed straight "A's." I learned that developing native intelligence was dependent upon a word or two shared through tolerance. Money, clothes, friends, sex, looks, athletics, cliques, clubs, music, abuse, dwellings, alcohol, drugs, cars, image -- all of these matters confronted all students every day of the school year. Everyone in class could smell my distaste or catch a lie without fail, so I better admit my share of blame.

I learned much, much more from my students as I began to search for a thread of common ground in each of them. Neither the students nor I wanted to be peers, but rather we wanted to let our friendships develop in time. I can't tell you how many so-called "problem" teens came back years later to say significant things about our work together. All of them had their own fond and unpleasant memories, but we had worked to become a brotherhood (sisterhood) of equal toleration and deeper understanding.

We sweat, fought, reasoned, and loved our way through the years of our campaigns. Now, I am so proud of the unbelievable accomplishments of these young people, and I often think about how easy it might have been for any one of them to stop achieving. To this day, they never cease to amaze me with their amazing lives. I live my life now through them. When they overcome obstacles, I can almost read their minds. Incidentally, some of those who bloom slowest, bloom best.

When we don't tolerate those we should, we lose. No classroom, government, corporation, or alliance can survive in a state of intolerance. After all, I am not like you and neither are you like me. We are fortunate to share good experiences; however, we are just as fortunate to share opposition of opinions. Without the cooperation of all flawed humans, society stands still or even declines. We must develop together and attempt to pull the qualities of goodness from deep within each other; this must be done no matter how distasteful it may seem.

When we don't practice toleration, we never see the spark of a person's fiery potential. We believe only what we tell ourselves is correct; we assume our limited opinions are most vital; and we create a wall of self-importance that no new idea can penetrate.

I once heard that President Lyndon B. Johnson, in order to push the process of passing important legislation, would invite high-ranking political opponents (Democrats and Republicans) to his ranch in Texas, explain the importance of the reform to the assembled group, and lock the disagreeable politicians in the room until they ironed out a suitable compromise. There may be a lesson for all in this mythic version of the Great Society.

If toleration does not end in great compromise, the lesson of acceptance still plants seeds for future negotiations and connections. If this sounds to you as if I don't believe in "love at first sight," I think you judge me well. Tolerance allows for development of affection for imperfection. Believe me, we all have major imperfections. To accept the perceived shortcomings of another is a developed, true love. Is toleration a form of love. I believe so.

Now, we all ate our spinach, didn't we? We, as adults, realize the benefits of finishing our vegetables. What is that green stuff still left on your plate?

"The capacity for getting along with our neighbor depends to a large extent on the capacity for getting along with ourselves. The self-respecting individual will try to be as tolerant of his neighbor's shortcomings as he is of his own."  -- Eric Hoffer

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