When you think of the word “tolerance,” what comes to mind?

Tolerance for your self or others? Tolerance for the pain you live with or the medications you may take to manage it? Tolerance for people who don’t look like you, or perhaps others’ tolerance of you?

Many days while living with chronic pain, you may have thoughts things like, “I just can’t do this anymore,” or, “why me?” On days that you suffer the most, do you ever find it difficult to treat others with compassion?

Many spiritual traditions say that how we treat others is a reflection of how we treat ourselves. Similarly, how others treat us is an indication of how they treat themselves. Only people who are kind to themselves can be kind to others.

These are important questions. Issues of intolerance have led to serious issues even in the U.S., with hate crimes and voter suppression pointing to deeper social issues. All the while, growing tolerance has led to historical achievements, like the election of the nation’s first black president.

On November 16, the world recognizes the International Day for Tolerance, an awareness initiative designed to promote respect for the world’s numerous cultures and ways of human expression.

What is the International Day for Tolerance?

The United Nations established this day in 1995 in an effort to raise awareness of tolerance, which it defines as “neither indulgence nor indifference.” Tolerating something is not about letting atrocities continue unnoticed, nor is it necessarily about waging violence in order stop injustices.

On a more personal level, tolerance is also about compassion. When we cultivate compassion for suffering and towards those things we don’t understand, we’re able to have greater tolerance for them.

How can the world respond to injustice?

The UN suggests a series of ways to help people shed intolerance. Through laws, education, access to information, awareness, and local activism, the UN believes all the world’s citizens can promote tolerance, whether as a leader or on an individual level. The UN says on its website:

“We should not feel powerless for we actually posses an enormous capacity to wield power. Nonviolent action is a way of using that power—the power of the people.”

How can tolerance change your life?

Tolerance at the core means expanding your mind and heart large enough to include room for people of all nationalities, subcultures, races, and religions. It means examining your own beliefs and acknowledging any prejudices you may have.

Many people are brought up to believe derogatory things about people of other races, or perhaps even about themselves. This is part of the reason why the UN believes that educating young people in schools and older people in workplaces and those in social systems, like police departments, is an important part of elevating tolerance.

Having these thoughts doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, it just means that you have some work to do to open your mind and heart to all the world’s citizens. Examining your current beliefs is the first step in this process.

On a more personal level, cultivating tolerance for yourself and others makes you a kinder person. It can help you be kinder to yourself, and kinder to others. In this way, greater tolerance can transform your life. You could befriend someone you never imagined coming close to, or at the very least, not be weighted down by negative thoughts.

It’s been said that how you do one thing is how you do everything. Keeping this in mind, expanding your mind to include tolerance for all living beings will expand your mind in other ways, too. Expanding your mind to see that you are a global citizen living in a very large world where some people suffer imaginably could possibly help you feel more grateful, even if you’re living under very difficult circumstances.

Tolerance at the core is compassion for all living beings, including yourself.

Perhaps you understand firsthand what it’s like to be victim to someone else’s intolerance. Has someone ever told you they believe you’re making up the pain? Or perhaps insinuated that you’re lazy? Maybe you’re the one saying unkind things to yourself, believing yourself less of a person because you can’t do specific things or need more help than others.

The beautiful thing about tolerance is that once you open your heart to have love and compassion for other beings, it helps you have more compassion for yourself. When you know that people are only as kind to you as they are to themselves, maybe you’ll understand that perhaps the very people causing you pain are suffering themselves.

Tolerance doesn’t mean ignoring bad behavior. On the contrary, tolerance is about recognizing the injustices that exist and working to find healthy, productive ways to solve them.

In your own life, maybe you want to become involved in a greater tolerance effort in your community, working for civil rights or helping with administrative work in a non-profit doing work you believe in.

Tolerance for people with chronic pain

Many times when people talk about tolerance, they’re referring to tolerating people who look and live differently. But accepting the difficulties that come from living with chronic pain is another type of tolerance.

Accepting the negative emotions you have as part of life and not an enemy is also part of tolerance, according to Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions. The center uses the term “distress intolerance” for situations where people are unable to manage personal distress.

Life with chronic pain is understandably difficult. But by increasing your personal tolerance for not feeling well and coupling that tolerance with mindfulness, you may be better able to engage in the activities that make you feel better. At the very least, you will find peace in knowing that it’s okay to not be okay.

What are your thoughts about tolerance?

Image by Ken Bosma via Flickr


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