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Sunday, November 29, 2009

What Is Tolerance, Really?

Protestor Holds Bottle, Oakland RiotsImage by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Let us not speak of tolerance.
This negative word implies grudging concessions by smug consciences.
Rather, let us speak of mutual understanding and mutual respect.
Father Dominique Pire 


I hear the word "tolerance" bandied about quite often, and the above quote puts my feelings about it in a nutshell.  Tolerance implies that we are simply putting up with something or someone, and what is the good in that, really?  A lot of people use the word in a sort of glorified manner;  "practice tolerance", "encouraging tolerance".  And every time I hear it used that way, it seems somewhat holier-than-thou to me.  What does practicing tolerance mean anyway?  "Here I am, putting up with your stupid behaviour because I'm a tolerant person."  Yeah, so?

When I wrote an earlier blog on compassion I had no trouble sitting down and coming up with thoughts and scenarios about it.  The word tolerance came up a few times in the last couple of weeks, which made me think that I should write about it also.  But when I first sat down to do so, I hit a wall because I don't think it's a very good or descriptive word.  In the above quote, Father Pire attempts to pare it down to "mutual understanding and mutual respect".  Even though I agree with that sentiment, there has to be something better than that to describe what the "t" word falls short of doing.

Occasionally my guitar students describe me as a very patient teacher.  Patience is defined in Dictionary.com as: 

1. the quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.
2. an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay: to have patience with a slow learner. 


The thing is that I don't FEEL impatient or annoyed with them;  I am not suppressing restlessness in any way.  Which makes me think that these are the things they are actually feeling themselves!  It doesn't bother me at all how long it takes, or how many mistakes are made, but it probably bothers them.  So am I patient, or not?

To have tolerance or patience seems to mean  a feeling of intolerance or impatience initially, and simply not expressing it.  In other words, there are members of my family with whom I am extremely tolerant of and patient :-).

So it appears that the whole purpose is to not come to the point of those negative feelings in the first place...or, if you do, to nip them in the bud right away.  This, to me, is a much more interesting subject, and probably means making a lot more effort!  How do we not feel these things?  And what do we call it when we don't?

If I can venture into Buddhist thought for a moment, Buddhists say that much of what causes our psychological and emotional ailments is our sense of "self".  When we see ourselves as separate from everything and everyone else, not only do we suffer with expectation, disappointment and a sense of entitlement, as discussed in my earlier blog on Compassion, but we often have difficulty understanding and accepting others, simply because they are "different".   We become prejudiced and judgmental, and yes, intolerant and impatient to boot!


It's amazing what self-examination brings to surface.  And often, just standing back and observing your own thoughts, especially in a situation that proves challenging, will actually dissipate the negative stuff to some degree, if not entirely.  However, many people are dealing with something else too...fear.  And fear is a very powerful pill.  When we don't understand something or someone, our fears can rise up and completely overtake us, leading us to all kinds of negative feelings and behaviour.  So we put up our dukes.  Religious and racial intolerance have lead to wars since the beginning of humankind.  And not only don't we understand others, we also want them to be like us.  What an added complication!

I think we started to get it right in the 60's (yeah, I know, you probably think I'm somehow still stuck there :-)), when peace and love were the words of the day and we began to fight against racism and injustice and to protest wars.   I remember watching news footage of all of these events on our little black and white TV, and feeling a tangible sense of good things to come, even though I was just a kid and didn't really know any better.  My parents kind of scoffed at the long hair and wild clothes, showing their own intolerance I suppose, but in their own hearts they were also anti-war and against racism.

There are still individuals and groups out there who are trying to change the world in a good way, but it's not foremost in kids' minds anymore, and we older folks have become rather complacent since we sent our last tie-dyed t-shirt to the Sally Ann.  How much has the world really changed?  These days there seems to be more religious and racial intolerance than ever;  more recently we see factions of both Muslim and Christian groups ready to kill each other at a moment's notice, and even though there is now a black president in the US, you can Google Michelle Obama and find horrible caricatures of her as a half-monkey on the internet.   And we humans always seem to find something (or someone) new to hate.

As much as we'd like to finger point, the truth of it is that we each have some of those tendencies inside.  As an example, I remember walking down a street close to my home a couple of years back and a small group of black males walking towards me.  They wore their pants below their butts and had splashy hoodies on, with the hood on top of their skewed baseball caps, and they pretty much looked like they could easily have just scored some drugs on another street corner somewhere.  I'm ashamed to say that I felt fear.  I was walking with someone else at the time and we talked about it after we had passed them.  I don't think the conclusion I jumped to, that these were people I should fear, even came as complete sentence in my mind.  It was a very automatic, almost instinctual response, which leads me to think that there is something biological or "programmed" going on too.  But that's no excuse.  I have a brain, and not only do I have a brain, I have one that can reason and distinguish and understand all kinds of things if I take the time to do so.

I am a person who examines myself and my thoughts often enough because it is my nature to do so.  I certainly can't expect people who don't know how to look at themselves that way to get past their own intolerance any time soon.

So what is a word that describes tolerance, but without the intolerance to begin with?  Maybe the reason I can't find one is that it doesn't exist.  Yet.

IJ











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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Good News Is Good News

TOKYO - DECEMBER 06:  Toyota launches 'Violin-...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
I woke up at about 3 am this morning, as is my habit these days, and instantly my mind was filled with worries and concerns, stresses and sorrows. But this time, rather than allowing myself to wallow in that misery, I decided that I wasn't going to let myself go there. For a change, I said to myself, I'm going to stop those thoughts dead in their tracks and focus on some happy thoughts.

Later in the morning as I was perusing the latest news on the web, I came across a link to a Time Magazine list of the best (according to them) inventions of 2008. What a great find! I thought to myself, and began to go through and read about all of the entries on their list. Some of them I can live without; for example, their number one choice, the "Retail DNA Test". You can send a sample of your saliva to various companies and they will tell you all about your genes, including your predisposition to 90 different traits. Well, personally, I don't care to worry about the chances of my getting various diseases. What would be the point in that? It would just give me something crappy to worry about at 3 am which would ruin my happy thoughts plan entirely.

However, there were some other great inventions that I didn't even know about on that list of 50, and it makes me wonder why the heck don't we see these stories in the headlines for a change? I know North and South Korea have a lot of problems with each other but I get tired of hearing it, and frankly it's been 56 years, can't they get over it? I'd rather hear about this new algae biofuel that they've been working on at Arizona State University, which would practically be identical to gasoline, but without the carbon. There's a lot more to why it would be such a great replacement for gasoline, so click on the link to read all about it.

But wouldn't it be nicer to read headlines that talk about new biofuels rather than ALWAYS having to read about our planet being in peril? I mean, I understand that a lot of people don't accept climate change yet, but you've gotta give a person (especially me) hope!

Then there's Eistein's Fridge. You betcha this guy was smart! He invented a refridgerator that uses amonia, butane and water to cool the interior instead of that crappy, atmosphere-destructive freon. It wasn't all that efficient when he was working on it, so scientists at Oxford University have taken the invention and improved upon it enough to bring it into the 21st century. You mean I can have a fridge that works just fine but doesn't poison the atmosphere? Thank you Albert, you are the gift that keeps on giving.

Okay, how about this? Smog-eating cement!! I'm not kidding. They mix an extra chemical into cement, and it reduces the nitrous oxides in the area by as much as 60%. It's being tested in Milan, Italy. I'm all ready to email my city council and ask them if they can start mixing it in our city sidewalks.

There are other inventions on Time's list that I'm not so excited about, like social robots. You know, those robots the Japanese seem to love that have facial expressions and can interact with you. I'm thinking that I'm not that desperate for friends. Yet. Maybe when I'm 90 and nobody wants to deal with me, I'll get myself one of those robots to give me a bath with a smile. He'll be really cute and tell me how gorgeous I am, and he'll feed me grapes and maybe even chew them for me.

And unless Nike's new Zoom Victory track spike running shoe can actually do the running and huffing and puffing for me, I'm not too excited about how light it is. Can it make me light? Lighter? I don't like running anyway. So I was pretty happy to find a list of inventions that included a few things that could end up making our future a little brighter.

You can read the whole list at Time Magazine's website. And I'm vowing to report right here whenever I find more good news out there in the universe. 'Cause I just know it's out there somewhere...

IJ
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Compassion

YANGON, MYANMAR - APRIL 24:  Pearl Oo, 13 mont...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
It's easy to feel compassion for some beings; for example, a small, helpless animal or a hungry child in some far away, desolate and impoverished country. Our hearts immediately go out to them. Compassion is defined in the dictionary as: - sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help; deep sympathy; pity But feeling compassion for some is not so easy. 

When the guy cuts in front of us in traffic, or we experience some self-serving loudmouth on television or hear a story about a thief grabbing an old lady's purse, compassion is the furthest thing from our minds. We'd rather give them what they "deserve", punish them and put them away somewhere. We don't WANT to feel compassion for these people. And yet our spiritual and religious heroes have always preached compassion and caring for all people. So how do we achieve this nearly impossible feat? 

I often like to read and ponder inspirational quotes. Sometimes a certain turn of phrase or thought can change my entire perspective, or give me a fresh and even sometimes mind-altering view of the world and human nature. So I'm going to include a few quotes on compassion here in hopes that maybe they will help you to find some for someone in your life who needs it. 

Albert Einstein said: "A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

Einstein wasn't the first smart guy to express this idea of our feelings of separation. When we feel separate from everyone else in the universe, how can we possibly hope to have empathy for them all? But the fact is, as Carl Sagan used to say, that we are all physically made of the same stuff of the universe, right down to the last cell in our bodies. I would take that one step further to say, at the risk of raising the ire of some religious leaders, that we are also made of the same spiritual "stuff", and what really divides us is our interpretation of the world and human nature. Ultimately what divides us most is our thoughts.

Diane Berke, a Reverend, author and teacher says: "The major block to compassion is the judgment in our minds. Judgment is the mind's primary tool of separation." When we are so consumed with judging people and their actions, it only emphasizes our feelings of separation. For instance, when we hear the story about the guy stealing the old lady's person, naturally, our compassion goes to the old lady, and we are quick to judge and condemn the slimy thief. We don't dig any deeper, and why would we?

This is an age of short attention spans quick sound bites and most of the time we don't pay attention to anything more than the glaring headlines. But no person is made up of one simple act, and if we were to take the time to look at the entire lives of these two characters, we would likely find good and bad in each of them. And surprise! We would probably also see ourselves.

Eugene V. Debs who was a union leader and activist in the U.S. in the late 1800's said this: "Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." When you can see yourself in someone else, suddenly you can't judge them in the same way anymore. Granted, it is difficult to see oneself in a criminal for example, but every human being was once a small, innocent child, and has had dreams and fears, hopes and disappointments just as we all have. But even if we do open ourselves up to feeling compassion for all living creatures, there are six billion people in the world, many suffering at the same time through terrible things.

Joanna Macy says: "Compassion literally means to feel with, to suffer with. Everyone is capable of compassion, and yet everyone tends to avoid it because it's uncomfortable. And the avoidance produces psychic numbing -- resistance to experiencing our pain for the world and other beings." We certainly don't want to have to contend with emotional overload. It's like trying to donate money to every single organization or needy human being in the world...there just isn't enough. So we have to start small, within our own little world and with the people in our lives who are not so easy to feel compassion for. It doesn't really take much.

Leo Buscaglia, one of my favourite writers and speakers, said : "Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." Compassion is not just a feeling, it is also an act.

A Buddhist saying goes something like this: "If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path." What you do for someone else, you also do for yourself, which ultimately brings you happiness. The practice of compassion is an ongoing one, and it does take "practice". I read somewhere once that you can begin by closing your eyes and imagine the people you love and care about, and then progress by visualizing yourself transferring those feelings over to someone you have trouble with. I've tried it a few times, and if nothing else, it takes away my feelings of anger and hostility, if only for a little while. And that's a start!

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."- H.H. the Dalai Lama

 IJ
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

We Must First Set Our Hearts Right

Leave It to Beaver (season 2)Image via Wikipedia
My daughter often jokes that my mother, who passed away in 1972, was a real "Leave It To Beaver" mom, and that I'm nothing like that. My mother was the typical housewife of that time; she was a great cook, kept her house spic and span, took care of me and my Dad, and we were her whole life. Of course, there was a lot more to my mother before her life with us, and I found out some things about her long after she died that gave a much more complete and realistic picture of her. But in the years before she became sick, I had a wonderful childhood, and being an only child I was the centre of my parents' universe.

I guess my daughter is right, it felt like a "Leave It To Beaver" life. I was lucky! Realistically, families are nothing like that idealized 50's version from TV. Partners split up, certain members don't get along, and in some cases become permanently estranged. There are family secrets, disagreements, jealousies and it can get worse from there. More often than not, divorce takes its toll, kids get shuttled around and life gets very confusing.

In my case, after my mother died, my father remarried and we became a blended family, which is quite common. I inherited a different culture, different traditions, and a whole bunch of new family, many that I have heard of but to this day have not met. I had two new siblings but they were older than me so we never lived together. However I can imagine that when the kids of two families suddenly have to live in the same house and share everything, that can be challenging.

But even in families that remain relatively intact, there can be many problems. Personalities clash, circumstances change, fortunes come and go. Good relationships can occasionally become stressed by the changes that are inevitable and even the closest of families have their burdens to bear. Not long ago my sister and I were sitting over coffee discussing family matters, and we reached the same conclusion.

Family relationships can be complicated, and this can become much more evident when big changes happen such as older members becoming sick or passing away and decisions having to be made because of it. The cream rises, but so can the crap! True personalities suddenly come to light, loyalties change, and it can be a very trying time for everyone involved.

All of you out there reading this are probably nodding your heads in recognition of the disappointments that happen in families. You likely find yourself closer to some family members than others, maybe you feel you have to put up with someone who you would never have chosen to associate with had they not been in your clan. And for some of you, it has been necessary to estrange yourself from an unhealthy family situation completely. Over time and since the idealistic Leave It To Beaver days of the 50's, we have learned to accept that there is really no such thing as the perfect family. Or have we?

If there is one occasion, one time of year that brings out the familial disconnections and disappointments, it's Christmas. For many, there are people in the family you love to see at Christmas, and those you have to see. There are great expectations and devastating disappointments that occur every Christmas that have nothing to do with getting the gift you really wanted.

And now I'm finally getting to the point of this particular blog...expectations. The psychologically healthiest people in the world are the ones who have let go of expectations and found a way to appreciate the family they actually have. We can't allow ourselves to be sucked into the happily-ever-after Hollywood view of things, it simply doesn't exist. A "picture perfect" family can mean many things now; for example, it can be comprised of people you choose to be with whether you are related or not. There may be only one parent, there may be two of the same gender. Children can be of mixed races, religions and cultures. And sometimes you have to accept that a member of your family, doesn't want to be.

For years I used to refer to my siblings with the word "step" in front. And yet, they had no trouble simply calling me their sister. One day I found myself questioning why I had this difficulty, and realizing it was because I STILL harboured this idealized view of my old family, the one I had until I was 14. Maybe that's a natural reaction...it wasn't my choice for my mother to die, and it wasn't my choice for my father to re-marry. But that is what happened. And in the last few years as our parents have aged and we have become more involved in their care together, without any demands or expectations, my sister and brother have taught me what family is really about.

"To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right." - Confucious

No, blood isn't always thicker than water. Thank you DL and DC. Love, Sis
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