What the World Needs Now!

Growing up, we had a rather quirky neighbor—and I adored her.

If women could be clothes, my mother was the cashmere cardigan with the pearl buttons. The neighbor was a handknitted, chunky sweater in countless bright colors—and I adored her.

She was witty, irreverent, and occasionally flippant—and I adored her. 

She was the only adult I really knew who hadn’t bought into all the trappings of adulthood. She lived her life on her terms, and we children called her the crazy neighbor. (Decades later, I realized how truly sane she was.)

What I also recall about her was the word tolerant. Living in a country with endless draconian laws, she peppered her sentences with it. “I’ll tolerate it; that’s not easy, but it’s tolerable; we need to be more tolerant.”

As a young child, I wasn’t too sure what it meant, but I became wary of the word as I grew older. It sounded like she was accepting of everything, as though she wouldn’t stand up to or for anything. 

Weren’t there some things that were simply intolerable? Cruelty to animals always came to mind. I couldn’t imagine any circumstances that would lead me to tolerate any form of it.

At that stage, I had not heard the saying which is now attributed to various people but is generally regarded as something Alexander Hamilton said: “Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.”

Was the neighbor showing tolerance, or was she simply not bothered to take a stand against anything?

After my Matric year at high school, I headed off to Cape Town to attend university, and digging into language and literature became part of my daily studies. The country was going through paroxysms of protests, and tolerance was very much on everyone’s minds. How does one deal with so many different opinions and differing perspectives?

A general definition of tolerance is: allowing the existence, occurrence, or practice of something you don’t agree with without interfering. Many believe that by practicing tolerance, there can be a free exchange of ideas and open debate. 

Moving to the USA, I stumbled on a quote by John F. Kennedy: “Tolerance is giving to every other human being every other right you claim for yourself.” 

He summed it up beautifully. However, I still had (and have) reservations. What if a person claims a right that is patently bad? Say they believe it is their right to steal from their employer? Would they then turn a blind eye when a colleague did the same? Is this tolerance, or are they both just bad people? 

What if the person stole food because they needed to feed their child? We shouldn’t tolerate theft, but maybe showing tolerance would be to try to understand what drove them to do that? 

I still haven’t completely figured out all the nuances about tolerance, but I do know we need more of it—a lot more.

The World has become so divided, and it feels as though societies all over the planet are actively looking for ways to create divisions between different groups. Without tolerance, no one can discuss situations or talk of compromise, which will always lead to aggression.

Practicing tolerance allows us to deal with different perspectives and different opinions.

Intolerance can lead to mental and emotional problems, not to mention the breakdown of personal relationships.

An American gentleman and founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church put it like this: “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with yours.” 

His statement comes closest to what I feel tolerance is. 

We all have our beliefs, but we need to accept that we live in a hugely diverse world. The World will never return to how it was before mass migrations, internet connectivity, and globalization. 

Our town, schools, workplaces, religious institutions, and in some instances, even our homes reflect many, many viewpoints. Aren’t these the places to start practicing tolerance?

We can only be better for it.

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4 comments on “What the World Needs Now!
  1. Martha Megill says:

    Amen, Jane! Such an important and timely topic.

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thank you, Martha. We all need to try to bridge the divisions. Practicing tolerance could go a long way.

  2. Bernadette says:

    Love this Jane! So much to think about and contemplate during these trying times. I always remember my mom telling us kids, until you are in someone else’s shoes, you should never judge but try to understand where they might be coming from. This to me was true tolerance growing up.

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thank you. Your mom was wise beyond her years. How wonderful you can pass it along to our children.

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