Coming to Terms: Tolerance

by Catherine Fournier

Three teens and a young adult (and two younger boys taking notes on how to make Mom's hair stand on end) live in this house. Where there was once the continuous smash of toy trucks and spit-spewing sputter of spaceships, there is now loud music and the sound of the shower.

I didn't realize when they were young that questions like "Is there anything faster than the speed of light?" (No.) and "If God knows everything, why do I have to go to Confession?" (Because. . .) and "Why did you run over the cat?" (It was an accident.) were the easy ones.

Now, I'm faced with "My friend is gay. He's the nicest person I know. How can you call him bad?" and "Her Mom is helping her raise the baby. Why are you saying she's wrong to keep it?" and "She hates her Mom's new boyfriend, so she stays out late rather than going home. Why can't I be friends with her?"

My children call me critical, mean, unfair and hypocritical because I have opinions and judgments about the behaviour of my children's friends (and truth be told, a lot of other people too). Apparently, in the midst of a society overflowing with the stuff, I lack tolerance.

What is this 'tolerance' I'm supposed to have? Is it really the uncritical acceptance of any and all behaviour, ethical systems, and beliefs? Am I supposed to just "Smile and Nod," at every choice and expression?

In the scientific and manufacturing world, tolerance refers to the margin left to accommodate minor variances or imperfections. The "correct to plus or minus 2 percent" given with the results of a Gallup poll is an example of tolerance. So is the little bit of wiggle room left when you put your house key into the door lock.

The more exactly or carefully made an item or measurement, the smaller its tolerances. A Swiss watch has very small tolerances. A perfect item would have no tolerances at all, since any margin for error would, in fact, be an imperfection. While there is no perfection in the material world, God is perfect.

In this sense, God has no tolerance (Remember, he threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden after one act of disobedience, what parent is that strict?) He has compassion, mercy, and patience in abundance, but no tolerance for error and sin. Since we are called to "be perfect as our Father is perfect," surely this means we should have compassion, understanding and patience in abundance, but no tolerance.

The sacrament of Confession helps reduce our tolerance for our sins and error, helps us "be perfect". It removes our sins, and makes us more aware of those we repeat.

What about tolerance for the sins and errors of others? Should we simply accept in others what we regret in ourselves?

Structures like roads, bridges and buildings are built with tolerances for environmental influences such as earth movement or wind, as well as defects in measuring and manufacturing. In these cases, instead of a margin for error, it's a margin for safety, recognizing that variations and imperfections exist in the material world. If the gale force winds of a hurricane on a bridge exceed its design tolerances, the bridge tears itself to pieces. The wind itself doesn't break the bridge, the bridge pulls itself apart as each piece fails and adds its weight to the destruction.

Democratic societies are deliberately created with the same kind of tolerances, recognizing that human variation and imperfection are inevitable. Checks and balances protect the structure of society from the sometimes destructive pressures of human error. "Innocent until proven guilty," is a good example of this type of societal tolerance, as are divorce and bankruptcy laws (as originally written to protect ordinary rights, not grant extraordinary ones, as they do today.)

These tolerances are not infinite, there are limits beyond which society can no longer hold itself together. When the amount of variation and imperfection exceeds those limits, the society falls. It's a cumulative effect, exactly like the successive failure of the structure of a bridge in a high wind. First one person falls, and then their family collapses. The damage isn't mended, so the children stray and lead their friends into error, and the cycle of destruction continues.

In the name of tolerance (and a fear of our own errors), of recognizing the existence of human error, we forget that we're supposed to repair the damage by correcting the errors. We're not supposed to be tolerant.

I can't just "Smile and Nod" while those around me commit sin and error. Their example may lead me and my children to error too, and the cumulative force of their acts is leading to the destruction of society. I must make judgements about the morality and ethics of the behaviour of those around me. I must state those judgements and let them guide my behaviour. It may be harder than explaining why I ran over the cat, but it's necessary.

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