Tolerance—An Energy That Heals and Unites

By Ken Wells - 08/11/2021


Series Two; Blog Fifty-Three

It’s been a year and one half since the world changed with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as we would like to think we are in control, COVID tells us differently. By now many of us either know someone or have a dear loved one who has succumbed to the ravages of this indiscriminate killer. Many of us, like me, have been infected by this nasty disease and some have struggled mightily in a gasp for air and even for life itself. Over 4 million people have died worldwide and 600 thousand plus in the U.S. alone. At times this devastation has been minimized, politicized, and commercialized. We all wait for the day we can put the pandemic behind us and move forward.

Like life, people see things different. As part of the human condition, we draw different conclusions about what is happening, its severity, and what to do about it. Without tolerance of those differences, we build a chasm that grows in bitterness, hatred, and judgment. Postmodern America from the Crash of 1929 to the close of the second world war discovered that humanity is not only not in control of the world but could even destroy it. Intolerance can inch the world toward further pain and heartache.

Addicts not in recovery tend to think that they know everything and that everyone else knows nothing. Intolerance dominates their life. Addiction recovery reminds us that unless we learn to tolerate each other we might destroy each other.

Even in recovery some addicts move to black and white judgments about healing, with intolerance toward therapy. However, historically, the A.A. position was that therapy could be practiced in any fashion that the group wished to practice it, and the same went for any individual. The position was taken that A.A. was not the final word on treatment; that it might be only the first word. Historically, A.A. told people to experiment with therapy in any way they liked.

Twelve-step community underscores that we need each other to heal. Tolerance promotes this reality. Shared struggle and recognition of weakness and vulnerability promotes connection and community. When shared weakness is not affirmed, there is a tendency to see others’ strengths as threatening. However, when shared struggle is the common connection, a bond celebrates others’ strengths and utilizes those strengths to reinforce the power of community.

Whether struggling with addiction or pandemic, tolerance is a necessary ingredient to create a healing community in the presence of crisis. We are all imperfect: addict and non-addict, Republican and Democrat, Christian and non-Christian, pro-life and pro-choice, those vaccinated and those who are not by choice. We are all flawed. It will take all of us to get through the struggle of crisis. What can unite and heal is the practice of tolerance.

Here are some considerations to promote tolerance in your crisis, be it the pandemic, addiction or any other suffering experience:

Accepting the difference in others begins with accepting your own mixed-up-ness: In the Charlie Brown cartoon, Lucy tells Charlie, “the problem with you Charlie is that you are you!”  This judgmental stance promotes intolerance of self and others. Pointing the finger at the flaws of others will only increase self-alienation. If you can begin by seeing your own inconsistency and incongruence, then you can see the mixed-up-ness of those you love and respect. Eventually, you will be able to accept the differences of those you find it hard to agree with or love. The essence of tolerance lies in cultivating openness to the differences in others.

Practice listening to others’ stories that differ from yours: Everybody has a story that influences why they respond to crisis the way they do. Every story is unique. The telling and hearing of these unique stories must take place in a setting where others who listen recognize that each share is rooted in limitation. This fundamental ingredient of shared weakness promotes a spirit that allows for differences between us. This difference can be translated as a strength and can be interpreted as enriching rather than threatening. It will promote becoming “teachable” within the conversation. The connection of shared flaws and common suffering between two people must first be established. In the presence of shared suffering, a grief shared is a grief diminished.

Identify and differentiate—don’t get stuck in comparison: Addicts struggle in 12-step meetings by comparing their experience of addiction to others’. They first try to differentiate in ways that sabotage identification. Looking for ways that you are different from someone before you identify with them usually creates distance and disconnection. Focusing on ways you are alike will help you to later differentiate. We all have different stories. Comparison tends to divide and separate. Carefully listening to the story and rationale of others can promote identification and connection. Recognizing and respecting differences is crucial.  When someone learns about the death of another through pandemic or addiction, often the question is, “What were their pre-existing conditions?” This could be a subtle way of comparison and could be received as a minimizing experience. The pre-existing condition was that addiction or COVID can kill! A more identifying question that can build tolerance and connection between two people would be “How has your loss impacted you?”

Tolerance promotes overcoming isolation by insulating connection in community: So many addicts suffer and die alone. So many COVID-19 casualties have suffered and died alone. Many addicts die in secrecy. For countless thousands around the world, the struggle for breath against the forces of COVID has ended in isolation and in secrecy. During the beginning of the pandemic, my son who is an ER nurse shared “Dad, when you come home from a run, exhausted and out of breath, it’s like the patient I treat for COVID, except that they cannot catch their breath and often die as I helplessly watch them!” These examples connect me to the struggle and casualty of COVID. Sitting with an addict and holding their hand through withdrawal and detox makes the struggle real and promotes tolerance and acceptance of other people’s struggle. You may maintain a particular view about the pandemic or addiction. However, connecting with another’s struggle overrides; it becomes a form of insulation from indifference and judgmentalism that can divide and separate.

Tolerance requires the cultivation of equanimity: Equanimity is mental composure under stress. Working through the crisis of addiction or a pandemic requires equanimity. You will be able to tolerate others, or tolerate pain that you don’t want, when you are able to cultivate mental composure in the presence of that pain. Equanimity holds both confusion and clarity in the presence of crisis. To navigate through addiction or a pandemic, you must practice equanimity to live one day at a time. Equanimity will generate energy to embrace your pain while you also hold space for both despair and discouragement. You expand your capacity for tolerance by practicing composure under stress and strain. Sometimes life just sucks and hurts! Equanimity creates space to suffer. It also recognizes moments of relief and renewal and embraces them while going through the trial and tribulation of crisis. Tolerance for your own suffering creates equanimity toward those who suffer around you.

As we make our way in the crisis of addiction and pandemic, may we practice the skill of tolerance toward self and others.

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