What we tolerate can reveal our values

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

Often, the outspoken make observations that startle the mildest of moderates, their timeless words debated for decades.

In 1979, my father first wrote about a comment from Archie Bunker, “that word-coining philosopher who espoused redneck, blue neck, and raw neck prejudices with a Brooklyn accent.”

Archie came up with a zinger one night during his program’s heyday. Speaking to a friend, he had dubbed “liberal,” Archie said, “You are the guy with all the tolerations!”

That could be a compliment, or an indictment, Dad concluded.

Yes, nothing is worse than narrow-minded rigidity that refuses any toleration of innovative ideas or differing opinions. And nothing is quite as dangerous as a total openness that accepts everything new with equal toleration.

We can become so tolerant that we resemble Robinson Crusoe’s pig pen that grew so big that pigs on the inside were as wild as the ones on the outside.

Or, more candidly, we can become so open-minded that our brains fall out.

But being intolerant of different people with new ideas, and new people with different ideas, can be just as fatal.

The late Carlyle Marney, renowned theologian and pastor, brought those ideas together when he said that “a conservative has the window stuck shut, and the liberal has the window stuck open. Both lose use of the window.”

The window of progress and significant achievement must always be kept unstuck, free to open and close. Our “tolerations” will allow us to open the window, permitting fresh ideas to flow in, dispelling stagnant air of stale traditions and lethal vacuums of dead air.

And our “intolerations” will wisely close the window, shutting out the dangerous winds that would damage our foundations, core beliefs or values.

In fact, what we do not tolerate anchors us, often striking a nerve that swiftly reminds us of all we hold dear. Such revelations give our lives context — our place in the time and space of life.

It reminds me of proprioception, a medical term describing the sense of one’s body in space. From the Latin, “one’s own,” proprioception is based on our internal receptors rather than the external receptors of our five senses. We use it when we shut our eyes and touch our nose.

Proprioception gives our bodies a frame of reference. If proprioceptively disabled, we could only walk by visually monitoring each step. Keeping our bearings would be a constant struggle.

So, too, is life, when we have trouble finding our internal compass.

Last fall, “Today” show’s Ann Curry traveled to Antarctica. Although departing with clear skies, they flew through “an envelope of white,” Ann reported, “that pilots refer to as ‘flying inside a ping-pong ball.’ “

That’s one vivid picture of disorientation.

Again, when our internal perception is distorted in life, we must summon external forces to gauge where we are in time and space.

Well-examined tolerations can rescue us from a sea of complacency, restoring value-based living. What we do and don’t tolerate defines who we are and what we value.