Understanding tolerance


Tolerance is defined as the quality of being willing to accept somebody or something, especially opinions or behaviour that we may not agree with, or people who are not like us.
It is undoubtedly a virtue that fosters peaceful coexistence, understanding, and respect in a diverse and interconnected world. Tolerance serves as a foundation for social cohesion, harmony, and progress.
By promoting acceptance and understanding, tolerance enables individuals from various cultural, religious, and social backgrounds to coexist peacefully, reducing social divisions and conflicts, and paving the way for cooperation and collaboration.
When we embrace tolerance, we open our minds to new perspectives and experiences. Engaging with different viewpoints and ideas enables us to expand our knowledge and develop critical thinking skills. Tolerance may often be accompanied by introspection, which leads to enhanced self-awareness and personal growth in terms of greater adaptability, open-mindedness, and empathy.
But tolerance is fruitful only when it is practised willingly, and not out of compulsion – to look good, conform to social norms, or be politically correct. When someone is forced to tolerate something against their wishes, it leads to impatience, irritation, and ill feeling.
Tolerance is voluntary and natural only when it stems from understanding, kindness, and/or empathy. We are willing to tolerate a disagreeable situation when we understand the reason behind it. If someone’s behaviour or lifestyle does not conform to our idea of what is normal or proper, we may still be able to tolerate, and even be friends with them, if we know why they are the way they are, and wish them well. But there needs to be a source for such good wishes – they will not arise out of nowhere. Such wishes are based on love for our fellow human beings.
We all love some people, who may be our relatives, friends, good neighbours, colleagues, or the amiable shopkeeper. Our relations with them are characterised by pleasant interactions, cooperation, and positive feelings. For this reason, we would be willing to tolerate unexpected behaviour from them – we would brush it off as an aberration and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Why cannot we do the same with everyone? Because we see them as ‘others’. Our love and concern are restricted to a circle of people and places we relate to in some way. People outside that circle are viewed warily, with suspicion, fear, or even loathing. Why? Because we do not know much about them, and so do not understand why they are different from the people we are used to dealing with.
It is not possible to know the story of each and every person on this planet in order to understand them a little. But knowing some universal truths vastly broadens our mind, helping us develop empathy and unconditional tolerance. These truths are spiritual.
We are all souls, sentient points of light composed of the energies of love, peace, truth, and purity. These qualities are innate to us, that is why we like to experience them. All souls are children of the Supreme Soul. In other words, each and every person in the world is part of one spiritual family. Someone may look very different from us, with a different complexion, funny hair, and an odd face. They may speak a strange language and have religious beliefs we cannot make sense of, but still, they are a part of the same human family that I belong to. They are just playing a role different from mine, as are countless other people. The souls playing various roles are fundamentally like me – they want peace, love, and respect. Like me, they would like to be accepted for what they are, and not judged or labelled according to the role they are currently playing in the drama of life.
Once we know these truths, reflect on them, and understand their universality and significance, our point of view changes. Then tolerance comes naturally. It is not having to put up with something; rather it is respect for the differences that add variety to our human family. I can enjoy the differences, marvelling at the huge diversity of my spiritual family. Then I will not even feel that I am tolerating anything.
B.K. Surya is a Rajyoga teacher at the Brahma Kumaris headquarters in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.