Last week, I attended Shadow Day at my daughter’s school. On Shadow Day, parents attend classes with their children.
As I sat in her American Literature class listening to a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, her teacher questioned the virtue of tolerance. In his brief comment on the topic, he referenced a talk he once heard by Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel survived the concentration camps and Jewish persecution of World War II. On the day that my daughter’s teacher heard Wiesel speak, another member of the audience asked how he could be so tolerant of other people after all of the hardships he had endured. In his reply, Elie said that he used to try to be tolerant, and that he eventually realized that in his tolerance he was making himself better than other people. So, he now just wanted to understand.
I often hear people speak of tolerance as if it is a high virtue. I acknowledge that tolerating someone is better than annihilating them, and I still don’t want to be a tolerant person. Like Elie Wiesel, I want to understand.
I’ll explain my reasoning by using some definitions from Dictionary.com.
- inclined or disposed to tolerate; showing tolerance; forbearing: tolerant of errors.
In order to be tolerant, I must learn to tolerate.
- to allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit.
- to endure without repugnance; put up with: I can tolerate laziness, but not incompetence.
When I look at these definitions, I see what Elie Wiesel spoke of in his answer. When I tolerate another person, I permit their existence. I endure their presence. When I permit someone’s perspective, I place myself in a superior position to them. When I endure something, I probably find it distasteful, painful, or annoying in some way.
I don’t want to permit other people to have their views. I don’t want to endure their presence. I don’t want to be tolerant.
Rather, I want to understand.
- to perceive the meaning of; grasp the idea of; comprehend: to understand Spanish; I didn’t understand your question.
- to be thoroughly familiar with; apprehend clearly the character, nature, or subtleties of: to understand a trade.
For example, my wife has a “female” view of the world and I have a “male” view of the world. These different perspectives often create different interpretations of events.
I want to live in peace with my wife. I want to live and work with her in a way that allows both of us to be happy with the relationship.
If I learn to tolerate her perspective, I will always carry a subtle judgment of it. I will permit her to be different. (As if she needed my permission.)
If, instead of tolerating her, I learn to understand her, I can live and work with her without the feeling that I am enduring something unpleasant. I can start to see and value what she sees.
In the realm of workplace conflict resolution, this concept applies equally well. When we tolerate other people, we are, in effect, judging them. We are filtering their views and perspectives in a way that says we permit them to exist. (Again, like they need our permission.)
When we understand people, we let go of the judgment, and we start to see people more clearly. We lower the filters and pretense that tend to mark tolerant relationships.
So, I don’t want to be a tolerant person. I want to be an understanding one.