‘Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot,’ observed an American painter arriving in Sarajevo in 1925. ‘Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.’1
This quote is taken from a 1927 book by L.G. Hornby, Balkan sketches: An artist’s wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153. So much has transpired since then that I doubt he would find the same peaceful mingling today.
Many years ago, during a performance review in Alaska, my then boss noted that I needed to be more tolerant. Specifically, I needed to be more tolerant of idiots, or those I might perceive as idiots. Admittedly, back then, patience wasn’t one of my many virtues (come to think of it, I still haven’t mastered its fine art). I found it difficult to keep my opinion to myself and would frequently interrupt meetings in that oleaginous man’s world where women were noted by their absence. My interjections would invariably begin with exclamations of disbelief. You’ve got to be kidding me! Are you mad in the head?
Naturally, this didn’t endear me to my male colleagues and gave rise to more than a few minor altercations. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at seeing the world from another’s point of view. I’m not quite so impatient. And while I might still whisper ‘idiot’ through clenched teeth, I’m less likely to offload a full barrowful of wrath.
I’ve noticed it, too, with my attitude to religion. There was a time when I felt I was doing wrong by entering a Protestant church. Indeed there was a time when Irish Catholics were forbidden to enter such domains without express permission from the bishop. Now, if I want to light a candle for a special intention, I go to where the candles are – be they housed in a Serbian orthodox church, or a Roman Catholic one, or a synagogue. I’m not fussy.
I was told many years ago by a Jesuit priest whom I admire very much that the church is a man-made institution. And yes it is… built by men to satisfy a need, altered by men to suit the times, and fashioned by them to accommodate their inclinations. But at the end of the day, I’m personally convinced that there is but one God, regardless of what name we choose to address Him or what shape or guise He might take.
Reflecting on this recently, I also noticed that I’m much less inclined these days to label things, to put them in their box, to attach what heretofore I saw as a necessary descriptive. I’m more content just to let things be what they want to be and take shape all on their own. I’m also less inclined to write someone off as an idiot simply because I don’t like what they’re doing or how they’re behaving. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I still think ‘idiot’ but, as the man says, two swallows don’t make it spring.
Perhaps that’s a sign of maturity, of ageing, or indeed of laziness. Or simply a case of better managing our expectations. Yet I reckon that if we stopped trying to fit people and situations into our predefined boxes and categories, we would rid the world of a lot of angst. And if we tried a little harder to see the world from their point of view, we could avoid a lot of confrontation. And if we trusted our intuition and listened to our gut, we might actually discover that there’s a whole new world out there, as yet undiscovered. And we might even become a little more tolerant in the process.