The Brilliance of Tolerance

By Ken Wells - 09/14/2020


Series One: Blog Forty-Five

“Honesty gets us sober, but tolerance keeps us sober” — Bill W

Tolerance is a human capacity that requires a deeper education of yourself and usually develops later as your recovery matures. It is dependent upon acceptance of yourself. When you don’t accept yourself, particularly the dark side of who you are, you tend to want to connect to those who you think are opposite of the part of yourself you don’t like.

I remember as a kid my mom used to bring home families for Christmas who were unfortunate and poor. She would feed them, make sure they had a gift and let them sit on the front row next to the Christmas tree when we handed out gifts. She would make me sleep in the same bed with one of the boys from the poor family because we did not have extra beds. I always hated it and was intolerant. I remember thinking these kids don’t have anything in common with me. I grudgingly put up with this arrangement and refused to find any identification with these kids. It was much later in my adult life when I began to accept my own shortcomings that led to acceptance of the weaknesses and limitation of other friends and family members that I loved. This slowly matured toward a connection and acceptance of the defects and shortcomings of those I found difficult to love as a result of recovery growth. I learned to hang with people who were really different than me as I learned to wear my own skin better.

The Dalai Lama shared that “we must learn that humanity is all one big family. We are all brothers and sisters physically, mentally, and emotionally. But we focus too much on our differences instead of our commonalities.” Most folks create connections with people who share their strengths and shy away from those whose strong points are not theirs. As a result, people get into comparison and competition which usually fosters alienation and reduces tolerance. Even in the 12-step community, there is an overabundance of comparison about stories shared and lengths of sobriety achieved. This mentality isolates and separates. A comparison mentality has the tendency to promote an “us” versus “them” mindset. “Them” is always “us” in a 12-step meeting when we connect through common shared weakness. This is the healing magic in 12 step communities that breaks down intolerance. Our addictive defects connect likeness while our strengths identify our differences. When we connect through brokenness, we eliminate comparison of story and celebrate another person’s strengths and achievements without intimidation or threat.

Tolerance characterizes 12 step community. As you share your story and others listen, you witness an unconditional acceptance regardless of what you have done. This is the experience that cultivates self-acceptance and tolerance. It all begins with you learning to accept yourself, warts, addiction, and all. As you listen to the story of others you become open in your heart to their story of brokenness and their differences because their unconditional acceptance toward you has paved the way for you to accept yourself. Without self-acceptance, tolerance toward others becomes shallow.

Intolerance always leads to hatred and division. Tolerance begins with a commitment to love yourself regardless of your addictive behavior and is extended to others when you put yourself in another person’s predicament and mindset. Many years ago, my son Jim and I visited Israel. We were seeking a Palestinian perspective because we had learned a pro-Israel persuasion through the influence of the U.S. media. I was told to go to the Jerusalem hotel and ask for a Mr. Abu Hassan who turned out to be a P.L.O. journalist. I shared my goal to gain a Palestinian view of the world and he agreed to give us a tour of the West Bank. We travelled through checkpoints and he shared the frustration and despair he and his family experience daily as they attempt to cross for purposes of work. We visited Ramallah and he openly shared heartache and struggle of people who seemed so much like me. He took us to Arafat’s compound and showed me his apartment that had been bombed and we visited Arafat’s grave inside the compound surrounded by guards with automatic rifles wearing masks. We then travelled to a place he identified as an occupied territory and stood in the front yard of a home he said once belonged to his father. He pointed across the arroyo to a settlement that was a refugee camp. He said to me and my son, “If someone came to your house and stole it and then insisted on talking about peace, wouldn’t you first want that person to give you back your house before you would be ready to talk.” This and other engagements on the West Bank challenged me to become more tolerant because I listened to a story of someone who suffered and was better able to put myself in his shoes through understanding. Tolerance has properties that open your heart toward healing within and toward others. It creates a quality of flexibility that champions forgiveness toward self and others. Addicts who are early in recovery, talk in terms of hating “the addict”. I have heard many complain that they so much wish they were not addicted and see the “addict mentality” as an enemy to hate. I have experienced all of this as counterproductive toward long term sobriety. Tolerance fosters acceptance of self in the midst of temptation to act out with addictive behavior. It transforms the curse (addiction) into a blessing. The blessing is that every time an addict is tempted with craving for the addictive behavior, it is an opportunity to meet a legitimate need in a healthy manner. It becomes a call for maturity in self parenting and caring for self versus medicating with addictive response. So rather than to run from the craving or temptation to act out, it becomes a way to deepen self-care. Through conditioning your response to that temptation, as an addict, you learn to appreciate the signaled trigger as a reminder toward self-care. Only through tolerance will the addictive enticement become a true blessing toward healthy self-care. Again, the Dalai Lama shared “that it is more important for humanity’s survival to be aware of our commonalities than to constantly emphasize what divides us. In 12 step recovery community, the utilization of tolerance not only brings you closer to others but integrates healing within the divided heart of an addict.

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