Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good Tolerance/Bad Tolerance

Back in January when our Teen Girl Squad started, we were talking about the charge to love God and love people, and some question came up--maybe one about how to do that, exactly. And somebody mentioned tolerance.

Tolerance is (and has been for a while) the big-word-on-campus. The "secular world" loves to exhort us to exhibit it, and, by and large, the Christian subculture like to tut about it and talk about how it's all well and good, but What About Relativism, and Humans Do Sin, You Know.

All of that is as may be, but I have a sort of tenuous relationship with the concept of tolerance myself--partly because I grew up as a self-righteous twit for some reason, and partly because my own encounters with tolerance have left me a little jaded. So I told the girls about this jading experience:

Back in the day ("the day" always being a different point in time depending on my story, in case you hadn't noticed), I had this group of about six friends. We were a mixed group both in terms of gender and in terms of culture, so this led to some interesting dynamics and also a lot of talks at McDonalds. McDonalds was the place where any two of us would meet to "have it out" if we were experiencing, shall we say, communication difficulties, and because of this we ended up avoiding it most of the rest of the time. (Well, also because, you know, it was McDonalds.)

Everybody has their own personal failings, and mine were, perhaps, a little more glaring or culturally inappropriate in this group or something, and so eventually things broke down pretty badly, and I had to meet up with one of the guys in the group--at McDonalds--to have things out for the last time. The conversation (which is a polite word for what actually went down) was summed up when the guy made this statement: "Jenn, for as long as I've known you, you've been [this particular personal failing]. I've tolerated you for four years and I can't take it anymore. I'm not speaking to you again."

We ended up speaking again (though we're not in touch now), through a long and painful and healing process, but it was in that one instant that I decided I don't have much use for tolerance. It sounds all nice and innocuous when someone says, "We should just tolerate everybody," but when someone tells you they are, or have been, tolerating you, it's like they just slapped you in the face.

I don't, I realised, want to be tolerated. Ideally, I would like to be understood, but I'll go for being challenged if understanding isn't a possibility. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that the opposite of love isn't hate but indifference (quote, anybody?), and I think that's true. Love and hate at least both dignify their object with some sort of value. Indifference is complete and utter disregard. Indifference and tolerance, in my experience, end up being just about the same thing.

My McDonalds friend was right about my personal failing. I can see how it could have become unbearable. But I wish these friends would have told me ahead of time how unbearable it was, and would have tried to help me through it, instead of tolerating it up to the point where they couldn't take it anymore and just slammed the door in my face. I realise they might not have known how to do that, or furthermore that I might not have been as willing or able to change if I had been coaxed instead of being outright rejected. Sometimes it takes a shock to make a change. But I'd still like to make the argument that love of any variety, and tolerance, don't really go together very well.

But, we asked in our girls' group, aren't there ever times when tolerance is good? The girls talked about their younger siblings, and how they would stand up for them if it came down to it because they love them and they're their siblings, even if they drive them crazy. We tried to define this and didn't really come up with anything more definite than "good tolerance" versus "bad tolerance." But upon further reflection, I have started to wonder if maybe the name that distinguishes "good tolerance" is grace.

Anybody have any thoughts on this?


Christianne said...

wow. that is just plain AWESOME, jenn. (and when i first typed that word, i typed it AWESEOME, which i find rather cool because when you said it out loud -- awe-see-um -- you sound real 80s-era cool.)

the part i am referring to as awesome is the distinction there at the end, that good tolerance is grace. perfect. i think that is totally it.

dude, i'm so sorry that experience happened to you. that sounds like it would have really sucked and really hurt. and i'm with you -- it seems so much better for everyone involved if we'd just talk openly about some of these things that we find different or irksome or intimidating or whatever in one another, without fear, with openness, rather than just building things up on the inside because we think "to love" means "tolerating."

what a great story, both the one you shared so candidly with us about your difficult personal experience and the one about having this conversation with the girls. very enlightening and inspiring. made me think, which you always do. made me laugh, which you also always do.

ps to an already very long comment: i think that lewis quote is from the four loves. that, or the weight of glory essay.

Annelise said...

Your line about tolerance being grace resonated with me. As you may (or may not) know, I've been writing a series of Bible studies on the topic of personal revival for our Wednesday evening Bible study. This week's study was on grace, so as I read your blog, I thought--"This is really about grace." Thanks for a good post.

jasdye said...

that story really put skin on - and gave me a vocabulary for - my problems with 'tolerance' as a rule (and also, good definition of 'good tolerance' - giving us something to aim for when we are encouraged to at least 'tolerate' someone.).

sorry that that story actually happened.

Jeff said...

Thanks for having the courage to share that.
Your thought provoked quite a lot of thought in me today. As I pondered it, here are the conclusions I came to:
We should spur our brothers and sisters in Christ toward more than simple toleration.
We should hope for more than toleration from the individuals that we have individual relationships with.

But often times we talk about tolerance on institutional, societal level. I think an institution can tolerate a group... That's within it's makeup. But love I think is a thing that has to be handed to individuals by individuals. The most a system could do is pay lip service to doing any better than tolerance.

Even among individuals, there are reasons I want to be loved. These are quite different than the reasons I should expect to be tolerated.
For example, I might want to be loved because I am God's child. I might want to be loved because I think I'm kind, or smart, or whatever.
On the other hand there are all these other things about me. I'm male. I'm heterosexual (bet I'm opening a can of worms with that one ;) ) I'm in my mid/late thirties, I'm learning disabled...
At best it would be silly to love me on the basis of my skin color, gender, disabality, age, etc. At worst it would be an implied (reverse) racism, agism, sexism.
For a minority to say "I expect tolerance" is a way for them to say, I think, "Look, all I want is a foot in the door, all I expect is the same treatment as everyone else. Just tolerate me the same way you'd tolerate some one who wasn't a minority."
That's my 2 cents, anyway.

GreekGeek said...

Completely unrelated, but when and where are you going to be this side of the ocean????

L.L. Barkat said...

I'm thinking someone made up the word sometime in history because, in fact, there was need of it. A simple answer, I guess. But there it is.

Jenn said...

It is in "The Weight of Glory" where C.S. Lewis says ". . . [O]ur charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner -- no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment." I always liked his use of the word "mere" because it suggests that tolerance is nothing more than that -- a "mere" affectation or passing fancy -- whereas love is the real deal, and is a lot more complicated, messy, and satisfying. Thanks for giving voice to something that many of us have felt for a while!