I’ve been told that there are about a quarter of a million words in the English language. Most of us know (or at least could guess correctly) a large number of them.
Given that stunning mathematical fact, why are we so stuck when it comes to describing how well we accept, respect, and welcome people – especially people who are noticeably different than us? We shrug and say “tolerate” and quickly add “not that I particularly like that word….”
And we shouldn’t like it. My handy-dandy default Google dictionary says:
TOLERATE (verb) Allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something that one does not necessarily like or agree with without interference.
Accept or endure someone or something unpleasant or disliked with forbearance.
Of course, there are some other ways to use the word that aren’t quite so hostile. Merriam-Webster assures us that it can also mean “to recognize and respect the rights, beliefs, or practices of others”. That’s what we mean to say, but somehow the word—even when we mean it in the spirit of generosity and love – comes out sounding like the I’m-enduring-something-I-don’t-like definition.
If you’re an engineer, it has a very specific meaning: it’s how different something can be without causing a problem. As long as everything is within tolerance (not too hot or too cold, not too big or too little, not too wet or too dry) things will turn out OK. Unfortunately, that’s about the depth of “tolerance” in many situations. I’ll let you be a little different, but don’t go overboard, OK?
My pharmacist uses the word tolerance to talk about how I need larger doses of something to get the same effect. Meaning, perhaps, that if I am uncomfortable with you because of what you eat/wear/worship, over time it will take more differences to make me uncomfortable. Interesting theory…maybe that’s what tolerance should strive for. Pardon me if this doesn’t sound at all polite, but if you just hang around I’ll get used to you little by little. Eventually I might become completely immune to the differences and they won’t matter.
On the other hand, the best definition I’ve heard, from our resource teacher Mitchell Bloomer, is that the point of “tolerance education” is to learn to tolerate our own discomfort. Once we acknowledge our uneasiness, and recognize where those feelings originate, we can be better able to deal with others who are not like us. I’m hoping that sometime that’s the first definition in my Google dictionary.
In the meantime, we’re using words that almost work. We have a Dinner of Tribute coming up on April 25. The theme is RESPECT, our way of talking about the underpinnings of responsible, loving behavior toward others. That gets us about three-quarters the way around the issue, but we need to do better.
Therefore, I am announcing a private contest. What word can we use instead of tolerance? Write me a quick essay. I might not even judge them. No prizes except a thank-you note. Email me you thoughts or post them here. I’m anxious to hear what you suggest.