Tolerance and Compassion

One of the lessons regarding anger that I have received over the past few months comes from the Buddhist tradition. The Dalai Lama said, "The suffering from a natural disaster we cannot control, but the suffering from our daily disasters we can. We create most of our suffering so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people." So to break down this statement from The Book of Joy, there are three key takeaways for me.

  1. Anger can be a result of feeling a loss of control - when we are overwhelmed, cornered, without recourse.
  2. Understanding that we create most of our suffering is a big step for me. It is the difference between "I got angry" and "They made me angry".
  3. We need to address the attitudes, perspectives and reactions we bring to situations and relationships because that is what brings anger, contributing to anger in ourselves and generating it in others. 

So how do we change what we bring to situations? An attitude of compassion and tolerance will lead to less anger, especially in ourselves. Tolerance is defined as the ability or willingness to put up with something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.  In its Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, UNESCO offers this more expansive definition: Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Teaching Tolerance is a project of The Southern Poverty Law Center and they view tolerance as a way of thinking and feeling - but most importantly, of acting - that gives us peace in our individuality, respect for those unlike us, the wisdom to discern humane values and the courage to act upon them. When we are intolerant and don't accept another person's viewpoint or behavior, anger grows from a feeling that one is right and the other is wrong. Tolerance is not weakness - it is harmony despite differences.

How do we change our attitude and develop our tolerance 'muscles'? Consider that there are things that you will tolerate from those you love, but would never accept from a stranger. The stuff that Uncle Joe says around the Thanksgiving table can be pretty offensive but you tolerate it because you are family and choose peace at the table over the need to put forth your own opinion. Even little things like being kept waiting - I might cut my chronically late friend some slack but get angry at the waiter, or doctor, or repairman. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the Greek term "agape" to describe a universal love that "discovers the neighbor in every man it meets." As we expand the way we greet all beings from a place of love and concern, we find we are able to tolerate a bit more.

We construct narratives in our mind all day to explain the world around us, including the behaviors we don't like. If our perspective is one of compassion and tolerance we reduce anger, especially in ourselves. What are the stories we tell ourselves and do those stories come from a compassionate heart or not? For example, what is your 'go to' statement when someone cuts us off in traffic - is it something like "What a jerk" or is it "I hope that everything is OK and that they are not rushing to the hospital"? This change in perspective doesn't happen overnight, but just as we gradually grow accustomed to the cold as summer turns to fall, so we can grow accustomed to tolerating the opinions and behaviors of all those we come into contact with.

Knowledge is another means to gaining perspective and more tolerance. When the person is 'other’ - a different race, religion, economic class, political affiliation - are we less likely to greet their actions or beliefs with tolerance? Consider making an effort to step out of your comfortable community and get to know 'others'. A reporter in my area regularly visited different houses of worship and wrote about his experiences. Try going to different ethnic restaurants or grocery stores - connecting through food is a favorite of mine, especially trying new kinds of sweets and desserts. Read all the opinion and editorial pieces in your local newspaper - not just the ones you agree with. Notice that I said local paper - these are your neighbors - and it's helpful to learn about what concerns them. On the other hand, consider limiting your exposure to national media. These 24 hour 'news' outlets aim to instill fear and strong emotions in viewers to increase viewership and make more money from advertisers. Don't let the media manipulate your emotions to make money. Watch just enough to be informed - perhaps 1/2 hour of local and 1/2 hour of national news - then turn it off.

Can we modify our reactions so that they are less likely to lead to anger? Yes, there are some concrete steps to consider when faced with people whose beliefs and opinions we don't agree with. Avoid going on the defensive. If you are secure in your own way of thinking then you are less likely to feel the need to jump in to justify your own beliefs and actions. Debate with respect, focusing on the issue and not the person. Avoid actions that are demeaning and dismissive such as eye-rolling and the use of profanity. We have two eyes and two ears and only one mouth -  we should use them in those proportions.

Attitudes, perspectives and reactions that are based in compassion and tolerance will result in less anger in me and generate less anger in those I come in contact with.  Even if I may not be happy in that moment, my decisions and responses can have an effect on my suffering and that of those around me. I'll strive to remember that others can't make me angry if I choose not to let it happen.