Is a Lack of Vomit the Best We Can Offer?

Did I ever  tell you about the time my husband told me hated the word tolerance? I was sure I’d misheard him. I was all, like, what? Huh? You can’t hate the word tolerance! Everybody LOVES the word tolerance. Simon Wiesenthal and the Museum of Tolerance and all that. Remember?

Yes, he assured me, he did remember. But he still hated it.

See, in my husband's view, tolerance was a word used to relate something bad, not good. A guy ate a piece of rancid beef but was able to tolerate it; that is, he was able to barely not vomit. A woman tolerated an abusive husband; she hated him but was terrified to the point of inaction. An Arizona sheriff tolerated illegal immigrants; he left them alone, but anxiously awaited the day he would be allowed to arrest and deport them. A liver transplant patient tolerated his new organ; he may have been in a lot of pain, but at least he didn’t die.

Tolerance isn't something to aspire to, said my husband. Barely not vomiting just isn't good enough. Hard to disagree with him there.

In my Survey of Nonreligious Parents, I asked people what tolerance meant to them. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said tolerance meant “regarding religious people with respect, even when their religion is not respected.” About 35 percent said it meant allowing people to have their own religious beliefs.” And the highest percentage — 38 percent — defined tolerance as “embracing all people and all beliefs, as long as those people/beliefs are not hurting anyone.”

This struck me as somewhat encouraging.

It shows that, to many, tolerance signals a sort of conditional embrace — where the “conditions” are based on whether an actual harm is being committed. Now embrace — that's a far nicer word than tolerance, isn't it? Embrace makes you think of warm hugs, peaceful acceptance, even love.

But now we must ask ourselves: What do we allow to constitute actual harm? After all, if we define harm too broadly, there’s not a shred of room for tolerance, much less embrace.

Are all Roman Catholics committing harm by being members of an organization that has harbored pedophiles? Are all Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Jews responsible for things done by sects of their own religion? Define harm too broadly, you see, and pretty soon we’re vomiting all over everyone.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to define harm or tolerance or anything else. But I do think that, as parents, we owe it to our kids to aim as high as we possibly can — so that they might aim even higher.