By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Sixty-Six

“Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”–Mahatma Gandhi

“Honesty gets us sober, but tolerance keeps ups sober”-Bill Wilson

Intolerance is the great debacle of our times. People who struggle to accept their own weakness, flaws, and failings are unable to accept the weakness, limitations and crazy making of those we love and respect, let alone the shortcomings of those we find difficult to love. Intolerance prompted the Dalai Lama to declare in his book His Holiness… “On some days I think it would be better if there were no religions. All religions and all scriptures harbor potential for violence—it is more important to be aware of our commonalities than to constantly emphasize what divides us” ….

Intolerance is a result of those who refuse to look at their own shortcomings and darkness. It is always easier to point a finger at another who has hurt you than to go within and embrace the way in which you have hurt others. Rather than embrace your own selfish attitude people are more prone to judge another’s flaws as to why there is inequity in relationship or community. If you are not willing to accept the vulnerability of your own weakness, you will not be tolerant toward the weakness of others. Judgment, division and separation come from intolerance which can quickly become a way of life.

I grew up in a Midwest community where the only people of color were African Americans who lived segregated from the rest of the community. The “N” word was an acceptable reference to African American people within the white community. It would be hidden in the presence of someone whose skin color was black with occasional embarrassing slips of tongue. Segregation was defended and justified with protests that black folk were unclean and would tear up property. These expressions of racism and intolerance were part of the fabric of white “truth” and understanding where I grew up. Of course, it was argued that there was no racial intolerance because Illinois was a northern state, far from the prejudiced South. A cocoon was built around racial intolerance and seldom questioned. There was no encouragement to look within at the fear, shortcoming and brokenness that permeated most white folk whether wealthy or poor in our community. Intolerance became an unnoticed way of life. 

Intolerance is not only racial.  Its tentacles intertwine marriage and family relationships, religious and every form of social setting in all communities. Intolerance fuels egotism, nationalism, and violence. It blocks people from asking “How can we serve each other?” For an addict, intolerance is like a worm that grows inside that takes over compassion and replaces it with self-hatred. Intolerance kills the possibility in the growth of self-love so necessary for long term sobriety. 

I want to suggest a recipe to cultivate tolerance toward self and others. The ingredients can be summed up in the acronym VOCAL. 

To create tolerance, you need a sense of Vison (V); a willingness to be Open (O) to differences; Cooperation (C), not competition: Acceptance (A) of other people’s power; Listen (L) to the heart of self and others. 

One of the secrets to overcoming shame in my life has been the vision of my own destiny that lies before me. Thirty years ago, when I had relapsed I contacted friend and colleague Dr. Ralph Earle immediately and told him what I had just done. He in his wisdom and compassion for me simply noted that you “really are harsh with yourself—you’d be better off if you practiced being gentle”. That was the moment in time that I had a vision of what “Velvet Steel” should be like. I decided that from that moment on I would become “velvet” toward every mistake, lapse or relapse that ever occurred. Rather than wallow in the mud of mistaken belief and failure, I determined that I would become “steel-like” in my spirit of determination to embrace mistake and failure and take with me the meaningful lessons from defects in character and wrongdoing, leave the rest behind and move forward. It has been a vision that I have carried with me and has helped the many addicts that I have worked with over the years. It has been the forging of velvet steel in my life that has become the foundation for the affirmation that I have shared “I am an unrepeatable miracle of the universe”. I firmly believe every living being is too.  It has been this vision that has infused tolerance with my own brokenness and has led to greater acceptance toward the weakness and brokenness of those in the world around me. 

Couples who struggle with betrayal and infidelity must learn this art form of velvet steel. Intimacy in relationship in all forms of community depend upon shared weakness. When it is not present, judgment and distance prevail. Rather than allowing resentment to rule, couples or community realize that at the bottom- they are the same. Until this happens, judgment, distance and relational dissatisfaction will dominate. Healing tolerance begins with a vision of velvet steel. 

Open Hearted Living:

A close heart hides behind a wall of fear and avoids vulnerability. It fosters xenophobia, fear and judgment toward others. It is the breeding ground for intolerance. An open heart is porous and real and is most necessary in the promotion of individual and community brilliance. It connects with the present moment and extracts meaningfulness from commonplace experience that we all share. It is not divisive. Open hearted people care less about who scores the basket but just that it is made. Open hearted communities care less about who gets credit but focus on the needs of many being met. For open hearted people the polls don’t matter. Bringing people together and meeting needs in community is their only focus. Open hearted people live from the heart. Image management or doing things so others notice gives way to compassion and impressions from the heart. Open hearted people take up less space and are not high maintenance in relationships. The attitude of open hearted people spawns tolerance. 

Cooperation, not Competition:

Intolerance is overcome with a cooperative spirit. A cooperative spirit always reflects surrender and letting go. Rather than to grapple, clutch and clasp for your piece of the pie, a cooperative spirit surrenders and takes what is, spreads it around and makes it enough with a spirit of gratitude. 

Competition quickly becomes a zero sum game that depends upon winners and losers. One person’s gain or loss is predicated on the loss or gain of others. It is like taking a larger piece of cake and reducing the amount of cake for others. 

Intolerance is overcome with a cooperative spirit. Empathy is based on the coexistence of all people which relies upon cooperation and not competition. This is the spirit that overcomes tolerance and attracts people to embrace the common shared brokenness of every 12 step community. 

Acceptance of those who are different:

It’s easy to become very narrow minded. When you see the world only through your eyes, you become blind to the view and different experience of others. While there, you are liable to become locked into a power/control battle for supremacy. It’s easy to envision our world as my space versus your space. When we do this, we divide community into “us” versus “them.” This dynamic creates distance within community and accelerates intolerance and a lack of acceptance of others. Addicts can become stuck here about their view of relationships toward others. Of course, those who have been hurt by addiction can become stuck as well.  Mother Teresa once said “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Intolerance wilts in the presence of acceptance of those whose experience of the world is different from yours. 

Listening to the hearts of others:

Intolerance recedes when people listen to each other’s heart. By listening to your heart and the heart of someone else, you not only bring peace in the moment, but access wisdom necessary in healing our world. Take time to listen to your own heart. Be quiet and let your heart tell you what it needs to say. Journal about it. Listen to whatever your body is trying to tell you about being out of balance. Whether you have a headache or are fatigued, your body is trying to talk to you about self-care. When we are in tune with our bodies, we are in a better position to be in tune with others around us and cultivate tolerance toward them. Disconnection fuels a lack of awareness toward others. Stress, sadness, anger, depression, anxiety become “the voices of God” that when listened to help to determine where the world is out of balance. It will allow you to access your own inner wisdom to make necessary adjustments in order to meet your own needs. When you slow your life down, you cultivate the discipline of listening to your body, emotions, and the world around you. Listen to the chaos, stress and strain about the world around you, it will help to understand what is out of balance and how to re-establish harmony and equanimity.  Explore what the world is trying to tell you through body experience and emotional reality. Explore what your world is trying to say to you through your partner, your pets, the birds, the wind, and the whole world around you. You can’t develop tolerance unless you create the discipline of listening to yourself and the world around you. Through listening we connect heart to heart. There can be no heart connection without listening.

Intolerance is the underlying theme that weaves throughout Step 1 in every addict’s story. Taking concrete steps to expose our intolerant spirit is the first step of recovery from addiction and self-centered egotism that dominates our world. Bill W was accurate “honesty gets us sober and only tolerance is the medicine that can keep us sober.

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