Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?

In Harmony

One of the major criticisms of the church today is the ongoing conflict within and across traditional denominations.  We’re divided on issues such as the ordination of women and LGBT persons, birth control and abortion, and other personal issues.  We’re divided on issues of social justice, including education, war, immigration, investment policies, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, and the roles of government and big business.  In other words, we as churches reflect all the disagreements and conflicts of our societies.  And we can forget the more important things that unite us in God.

We humans have a bad habit of turning disagreements into conflict.  Most of us find conflict uncomfortable, so we try to avoid disagreements.  Some even go so far as to seek a church where everyone thinks alike.  But conflict doesn’t have to be destructive, and isolation from conflicting ideas isn’t a solution.

If your ideas differ from mine on an issue important to us both, we might both seek to avoid conflict by not ever talking about that issue.  But is that really the best way to relate to one another, interacting on the surface and ignoring one another’s concerns and passions?  Even if we know we would do better to listen to one another more deeply, we may be afraid of losing the esteem or friendship we value.

And yet it is when we disagree – even to the point of conflict – that we encounter an important opportunity for growth.  When we use our disagreements not to try to convince another to think our way but to work for better and deeper understanding of each other, we can learn and gain in understanding, even though our different convictions remain to enrich the depth and understanding of our community.  And I believe that this deeper understanding of one another, including our disagreements, is how we are meant to live in community.

Think in terms of harmony.  Living in unity in God does not mean we all sing the same note.  Just as a chord is more interesting, richer, deeper than a single note, so is a community of diverse ideas and convictions more interesting, richer, and deeper than a community with a single set of beliefs.

When we define our differences as discord, we assume that there is a “right” way of thinking and that anything else is “wrong” – a false note in the chord.  So we seek to avoid this discord in one way or another.  But what happens when we define our differences as harmony?  What happens when we base our interactions with one another on the assumption that all of our voices belong in the chord – or the orchestra or choir – and that no one is “wrong”?  Then we can begin to value each voice, listen to it, and seek harmony with it – even when the note being sung is not our particular note.  Then, by listening, sharing, and learning to value our differences, we enter into the harmony of true unity in God.