Compassion Beyond Tolerance

Dear Faceless Void,

First off, I suppose I should apologize for sending you a letter last week out of the blue. There has been a lot rambling around in my head: thoughts and ideas and feelings I’ve been needing to get out. Frankly, I didn’t know who else to turn to. And you have always been so compassionate in your ability to listen without judgment. And thus, I wrote, and write again now, and shall again in the future, I am sure.

I mention compassion, and that is what is on my mind today. Or perhaps empathy? Maybe both. But also the idea of tolerance and the intolerable.

My early life was spent in southern Illinois. The biggest difference among the community was which protestant church you attended on Sunday. Were I to describe it in detail, you’d think it was a caricature of “rural America” that could not possibly be true. It was a place where democrats were seen as money grubbing hucksters, and the only “true” professions were farming or coal mining.

It was a place where compassion and tolerance only extended to those exactly like you.

It has been a long, hard road that I am still walking, trying to find and unlearn bad habits, to come to terms with the traumas of feeling like I had to hide my own compassion and empathy. There were others like me, kids who also tried to reject the pressures put on them, and I remember seeing the light fade from their eyes as they gave up and chose to just be part of the environment.

If my family hadn’t moved away when I was in middle school, I would probably be in their number.

I sense, dear void, that even you are wondering at what that has to do with anything. Humor me, as I’m laying ground work.

The paradox of tolerance is that we cannot be absolutely tolerant, in so much as we must be intolerant of intolerance. Much has been said on this subject, and I do very much agree that both people and institutions need to guard against the hateful, harmful, and bigoted. This is something I’ve had to learn, how engaging in “debate” is only legitimizing the idea that people’s humanity can be put on the debate block in the first place.

I also honor that, when someone is hurt, it is not their duty to try and “find common ground” with their antagonist. If someone is harassed, the knee jerk reaction should not be to say “well, think about the person who hurt you.” We should never try to minimize a person’s experience like that. A victim has no onus to ever forgive the one who hurt them. It isn’t needed for healing, and the idea that it was needed came from institutions trying to maintain a status quo and “smooth everything over”.

Do you feel the structure, dear void? That looming horrible dread that this is the point where I invalidate everything I’ve said with a single, three-letter word? Where I say “all these things… BUT…”

I am mindful that is my impulse. This letter feels more and more like a persuasive paper written for high school composition. And I refuse that impulse.

We are in a culture where one third of the population sees another third as irredeemable. In America, we are calling it the Red-vs-Blue divide, Rural-vs-City, Left-vs-Right. I am, if you had not gathered, a very strong leftist. I was also raised by very strong conservatives that had gone full alt-right before I had to remove them from my life.

It hurt. It still does hurt. Because even for as toxic as they are, as much as it was needed for my own mental health and wellness, I can still feel compassion and empathy for them.

That is the core of my thoughts: just how much the world has stopped trying to even see the why of others’ actions. We have begun to realize how blind we’ve been to providing safety and care for the vulnerable, and there are things that we cannot and should not tolerate, hurts and injuries that have gone unaddressed for generations. In this process, though, we have began to vilify the others. We have drawn a line where our empathy and compassion extends only as far as our tolerance.

We see others’ hate as prime motivator. But hate is not a core emotion. It is a product of two: fear and anger. Those emotions, unchecked, will so easily lead a person to hurting others out of a sense of self-protection.

So, dear void, I am presuming you are wondering what I’m trying to say, as I’ve rambled quite a bit. But, again, that’s why I like you. You can wait for me to find myself.

I feel compassion for all those who hurt me. I want to help them, and I also do not want them to hurt me or others. I will gladly call them out for their transgressions and hold them to account, but I also dearly want to see them learn, for their fears and angers to be addressed so they don’t feel a need to hurt.

It seems a paradox, that compassion and empathy can extent beyond what we can tolerate, that we can still feel for those who have wronged us. And I also feel so strongly for those who can’t do this, who have been hurt too many times, who have seen the cycle time and time again and can no longer dare hope things might be different.

But I think we can recognize the difference between compassion and tolerance. There are many who might say the line has to be the same, that we have to let people hurt us just to engage, to try and help. But that would only enable the behaviors and send the signal that, if we tolerate being hurt, it is okay to continue hurting.

But what does it look like to have compassion for the intolerable? How does one engage with those claws and teeth and not get cut?

I don’t know. I’m trying. In my personal and professional life, I am trying dearly. I hope I can find a way. Because the other option is to just give up. I don’t want to do that again.

Wish me luck, dear void. Perhaps just being able to see the difference, to acknowledge the paradox, will help.

Until next time,