Monday, 2 February 2015


Sometimes, things that I see, and hear, from family, friends and acquaintances, lead me to believe that people are becoming less tolerant.  I don't know whether it is the nature of modern forms of communication, such as social media, text messaging and others, or a more fundamental change in society, but there seems to be more of an "I win, you lose" attitude on display.

Maybe it's me.  I have to accept that I may be wrong about things.  For example, I see various movements which are supposedly concerned with creating equality, and yet they represent the interests of one group only.  I'm not saying that the groups that are represented are not disadvantaged, but the people who claim to represent them seek advantages for their chosen group, not equality.  Surely that isn't right?  I must be mistaken.  Maybe I'm looking at it all wrong.

Over the years, I have listened to many people and come into contact with many systems of belief.  Everyone goes through this, and our own beliefs are derived, at least in part, from what we take on board or reject.  How much of this is simple confirmation bias, we have no way of knowing.  Due in no small part to the aforementioned confirmation bias, our internal system of belief determines how we view and interact with our external world.

A personal view

My own way of dealing with others is based on a simple principle, which has more to it than appearances would suggest, though it can be summed up as follows:

1.  Understanding (optional)
2.  Acceptance

Is it surprising that understanding is optional?  It shouldn't be.  We should, of course, make an attempt to understand others, but is it always essential?  I would suggest that it isn't even always possible.  We do not all share the same experience, or background.  More to the point, based on what I have seen and heard recently, not everyone is able to empathise with others, or willing to even try understanding.

Am I suggesting it is possible to accept that which we don't understand?  I'm not just suggesting it is possible; I'm suggesting that it is essential.

Accepting without necessarily understanding

There are people, and viewpoints, we will never understand.  I don't understand terrorism, or racism, or any of the numerous forms of bigotry which are clearly not going away any time soon.  I can't condone these things, and that is not what accepting their existence is about.  Instead, I accept that some people hold beliefs which are abhorrent to me.  Having accepted this, I must ask myself what I can do about it, and accept that, in reality, there is little or nothing I can do.  Others are already fighting against these things, many of whom have more power and influence than I, so another thing I have to accept is that it is not my fight.

I started with an extreme example, so let me approach this from a less contentious angle.  Suppose that I had a friend who, for a hobby, liked to go base jumping.  It's not something that I understand, because I have no inclination to do it myself.  To me, it's a risky pursuit, and I have no intention of endangering my life needlessly.  However, that's just my point of view.  Do I question my friend's sanity, or our friendship, because we differ in this way?  No.  I accept that the friend will continue to go base jumping, even though I don't understand.

A recent example

Recently, a video clip has been circulating where a prominent atheist challenges belief in God.  The issue is that this person is relatively famous, is seen by a number of people as having a great deal of intelligence, and is denouncing a system of belief in a very public way.  It would be easy, and perhaps understandable, for those who feel they are the targets of his outburst to react with anger.  There are good reasons for religion and politics being taboo subjects in most workplaces: few things provoke such strong feelings, and few things are capable of causing such offence if mishandled.

How can we practise acceptance when faced with such a challenge to our beliefs?  Well, we must accept that others have a right to their beliefs, and also that these are the beliefs of just one person.  Some will point out that he is representative of atheism.  No, he isn't.  He is just one person, and I would guess that atheists do not all hold the same beliefs, beyond the one which defines atheism.  I have no reason to believe that he understands, or accepts, people who believe in God.  Then again, I have no reason to believe that he does not understand or accept those who believe in God.  He either accepts that others have beliefs which differ from his own, or he dismisses these people as deluded and not worthy of his time.  In terms which those who put their faith in science will understand, he is Schrödinger's atheist: given that he is in the entertainment industry, and therefore needs an audience for his livelihood, we must accept that the box may never be opened.

When acceptance leads to rejection

A few year's ago, a friendship that had lasted many years came to a sudden end.  Your first thought may be that my friend passed away but, as far as I know, he is alive and well.

There was a time when I hadn't seen my friend for many years, and seeing him again seemed to go well at first.  After a while, however, I started noticing things weren't quite right.  I don't know whether it was the time apart, or a greater level of maturity on my side, but I realised that certain patterns had always existed in the way we interacted.  In short, it had always been a one-sided friendship, and not a very good one.

What I had to accept was that the same patterns would keep repeating, and that I had spent a number of years fostering a relationship that didn't exist in reality.  The hard thing to accept was that the best course of action was to turn my back on someone I had regarded as a friend, however mistakenly.  Once it had been accepted, however, we just drifted apart.  In the time since, I've made new friends, and those are friendships that are actually worth keeping.

Learning to accept ourselves

Acceptance, you see, is not just about what we allow into our lives.  We must also accept that there are some things we need to let go.  This is especially true when we are seeking acceptance, especially from ourselves.  The whole self help industry thrives on us not being happy with who we are, feeling that we must change in some way.  Yes, it is healthy to let go of anger, mindfulness is a very useful thing and assertiveness also has its place, but there is a point at which we must be at peace with who we are.

If you feel that you are not good enough, when is that going to stop?  What will you have to change before you are finally happy with who you are?  Is it not better to treat yourself with kindness, acknowledge flaws where they exist and actually believe that you are fine as you are?  The main point here is to accept our flaws; whether we do anything about these flaws depends on their effect on us, and others.

I hope I have made my point.  It is better to come to accept something or someone through understanding, but understanding is not a prerequisite of acceptance.

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