“If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness, your level of consciousness; you would think exactly as she does.
With this realisation comes forgiveness, compassion and peace.”
Over the years I had written down life values I felt I lived by. Included in my list were tolerance and empathy grouped together as being one and the same. I now see them as different. The dictionary defines these values as:
Tolerance: “A fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality etc differ from one’s own.”
Empathy: “The capacity to recognise feelings that are being experienced by another being”
I see tolerance as recognising and allowing someone to be different than you; while empathy as feeling the emotions of another to gain a better understanding of them.
I had previously considered myself a tolerant person, accepting people regardless of their age, sex, religion, beliefs, culture or nationality. However, in the months after my marriage ended, I found my tolerance to people who did not think in that same manner dropped very low. Moreover I became quite intolerant of people who showed aggravation to others, gossipers, or anyone who displayed an attitude of exclusion. Herein became the paradox of my own tolerance. I was showing tolerance to everyone except those people who were intolerant. I was (by definition) displaying intolerance.
On the other hand, having gone through one of the the most painful periods of my life, my empathy grew. Empathy goes further than tolerance. To be empathetic, you have to get inside the other person’s situation, inside their head, you need to feel their feelings and think their thoughts. In doing so you gain an understanding as to why they think and speak the way they do, why they act the way that behave, why they have their attitude. Instead of writing these ‘intolerant’ people off, I started giving them my attention. I asked questions about their home situation, their background, the week that they had just had, and any grief they had endured. As I had felt my own pain, I found that I could now empathise more with others pain, with their feelings of loss, with loneliness, with abandonment, with grief, with being wronged. I was now more able to understand them and their humanity.
When you empathise with a person, you do not have to accept their actions, you do not have to agree with their point of view, you do not have to agree with their conclusions or their choices; and most importantly, you do not have to abdicate your own needs or your own values. However, by displaying empathy for that person you gain a greater understanding as to why the person behaves or thinks the way they do or did. Once you gain that understanding, you gain tolerance of them as people; yet you may still stand firm on not tolerating or accepting any adverse behaviour they may display.
What about tolerance and empathy towards someone who has mistreated me?
What about my attitude to my husband leaving me without warning or discussion?
I have over the months reflected on what he must have been feeling at the time, what his state of mind must have been, what anguish he must have gone through, to have put his own perceived needs ahead of me, our relationship, our family and his previously held values. True empathy allows me to grasp all his feelings, even the negative feelings. True empathy gives me the understanding that it was never ever about me and was always about him. True empathy allows me to regain tolerance to others, and to once again tolerate him as a person, as a person who is different than me. True empathy, given time, may translate into compassion and may be a key to my transformation.
I resolve that empathy, with its tag-along of tolerance, are two values I will live by.
We pass on the values of empathy and kindness to our children by living them. We need to show our kids that you’re strong not by putting other people down – you’re strong by lifting them up. That’s our responsibility. Barack Obama