Tolerance of the Intolerant

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of my Uncle Brian’s death. Given his love of wine and cheese, I enjoyed a glass of Cabernet with dinner in his honor. But more importantly, I reflected on the lesson he taught me about exercising tolerance of the intolerant.

You might be thinking that he taught me this because he modeled such tolerance himself. However, this was not the case.

In fact, Uncle Brian was one of the less tolerant people I’ve known. While his biases regarding how people spent their time and what they believed were certainly evident, perhaps it was his intolerance of ignorance (as defined by him) that he most fervently expressed.

Nurturing good qualities is like watering a struggling plant. (c) Flavio Takemoto

Nurturing good qualities is like watering a struggling plant.
(c) Flavio Takemoto

Not knowing something he considered important was considered a travesty. An accomplished chemistry professor, he felt that anyone who delved into the “soft sciences” like psychology, history, or philosophy was inferior. And so, as someone with a Ph.D. in psychology, I fit right smack into this inferior bunch. My choice to work in the non-profit sector instead of pursuing a prestigious tenure-track academic career made it even worse.

Needless to say, this intolerance created tension — within our family and within my uncle’s other relationships. It would have been easy to respond to him with my own intolerance for his harsh judgments.

And admittedly, I did sometimes — because, well, I’m human and I’m no better than anyone else on this journey. But when I found my faith, I realized that there was a glaringly simple solution to this struggle.

Jesus taught us to not judge, or we too will be judged (Matthew 7:1). In other words, if we meet another’s intolerance with our own, where does the vicious cycle end?

Another’s intolerance — toward us or someone else — presents an opportunity to practice the one command Christ asked us to follow: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:12).

How can we not? As humans, we have failed miserably in our tasks of glorifying God, caring for each other, and caring for the planet and creatures that He created.

And yet, He forgave us. How can we not pay this forward and forgive each other? How could I refuse to tolerate Uncle Brian’s shortcomings when Jesus has graciously and undeservedly forgiven mine?

The other lesson I see embedded in Christ’s command is to choose to see the good in each other. Isn’t that part of loving one another? And despite my uncle’s intolerance, he had boundless good within him.

He deeply loved his family. He was funny and smart. He cared about his friends and was a master of hospitality. He tended the most vibrant vegetable garden of any I’ve seen. He made a mean mint julep and rendered horse racing an exact science. He was sentimental. He felt deep emotions — including joy and regret — and knew on some level that he was flawed just like the people he judged, even though he couldn’t always admit it.

And because of all of these things — the good and the bad — he was human, just like the rest of us.

By choosing to focus on Uncle Brian’s good qualities, I nurtured tolerance for his intolerance.

It seems that when we do this, the good in others is nurtured also. Perhaps this is because when we pay attention to something, we water it like a struggling plant. And the things we choose to water will be the things that grow.

As my faith has deepened over time, so has my capacity to be tolerant of the intolerant. I’m not saying it isn’t hard. I’m human, and I certainly fail my share of the time.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

So thank you, Uncle Brian, for continuing to be a consummate teacher, even now. You taught me well.