How to become a tolerant person

I don’t make a big secret out of being a Zen Buddhist. I’m not always a good Buddhist and I tend to refuse to follow things in some doctrine that I think won’t work, but for the most part the term sufficiently describes me.

This isn’t strictly inspired from my bird’s eye view of Stack Overflow, or even Meta – it’s something I’ve been noticing for quite some time at many places and the wisdom to articulate it just hit me, so I’m writing this. I could be completely wrong, I might have failed to follow this very advice in the past and perhaps my frequent travels to far away and strange places might be providing some insight that simply can’t be obtained elsewhere.

What I see, is People seem to be growing increasingly intolerant and that is a major problem.

What I know is, tolerant people are generally happy, productive peaceful people who get every ounce of joy that they can out of life. They love waking up early, they love doing whatever it is that they do, from programming to waxing a floor. They smile when you accidentally bump into them and they give you a few bucks at the cashier if they notice you are holding up the line and tossing your pockets.

They don’t honk their horns in anger when stuck in traffic, they make a serious effort to be pleasant even when they would really rather pull out their hair and they love the satisfaction that they receive by making someone else’s day or life just a little bit better. They aren’t too quick to judge and they seldom interrupt you even when you might be wrong.

The first step to becoming a tolerant person is playing one on the T.V. that is always left on in your brain. This requires a few seconds of something most people would call existential angst, but it isn’t really. Imagine, if you would an alternate you that doesn’t do or say things you really wish you hadn’t done or said in the past. If it helps, imagine this person with a goatee, or clean shaven if you already have a goatee, or whatever you want to see yourself as a different person. Maybe this mirage never bit their nails, never got that scar from a bicycle accident, whatever suits you in a gender appropriate way. The point is, make this imaginary you first with some sort of obvious improvement. This becomes kind of like a clone that isn’t programmed yet, now you need to program it. To do that, you need to learn a few things.

Lesson 1 – Defend only your self

Points come and go, beliefs come and go, experience often changes our mind on what we thought was core knowledge, sometimes decades after learning it. The point is, most of that stuff isn’t immutable, there’s no need to argue it once you’ve shared what you know. Still, since we are animals (after all) we do need to defend ourselves. An attack on your intellect isn’t a worth while reason to fire rockets in retaliation, that just assures mutual destruction. There is nothing wrong with saying “this conversation can’t serve any kind of useful purpose any longer. I’m off to more positive things.” You aren’t just being reasonable by saying that, you are speaking to the sense of reason in the person you might be about to argue with.

If some thug threatens your physical welfare in person, by all means, defend yourself. In ten years an argument you had on some web site will probably be moot anyway.

Lesson 2 – Abandon preconceptions

Isn’t it interesting how different human beings are from ducks? Ducks look alike, we assume that they act alike. For the most part, when we see a duck, we can expect some sort of predictable behavior. They quack, they swim, they flap around and they breed. Unfortunately, we juxtapose this kind of simple categorization when dealing with other people all too often. Don’t do that, every person is unique despite how similar they may seem to others who look and mostly act like them. Regardless of age, gender, race, nationality or education – people will always respond differently to frustration and criticism. While their output in response to the former might seem similar, the circumstances that shaped their mind are usually quite unique. That’s the difference that a tolerant person takes time to mine.

The single, most egregious mistake that I often see people who I consider highly evolved and intelligent making is shutting out someone just because they happen to fit the pattern that some ten second assessment provided. Don’t do that.

Lesson 3 – Go above and beyond

There is a Zen koan, I can’t find a link to it that describes a master sitting by a river and meditating. A traveler approaches, promptly spits in the master’s face and the master smiles. After a few minutes, the master asks “Do you have anything else to say?” A week later the traveler returns, and immediately apologizes, profusely to the master for the insult. The master smiles and simply says “why apologize?

Not everyone is a Zen master, but we can all relate to being in a panic, being furious, being desperate or even being intoxicated. People make mistakes, the goal is to seek the rational person in your conversational partner. They’ll cool off eventually, let them know the door is open once they start speaking in a rational and constructive manner.

Lesson 4 – Don’t hold a grudge

Try not to hate, ever. Think of hate like ankle weights that collect over time. In a decade, you’ll remember the people that you’ve decided to hate, but the reason why might seem fuzzy. For things that you’ll never forget, try to remember that every human being is born to make mistakes and learn from them, sometimes those mistakes are huge. Sometimes, you grow enough to deal with arch enemies trying to get back into your life, other times you can’t. It is important to realize that someone making reparations might have grown a bit, or to realize that they haven’t yet decided to grow at all. Poking an age old fire is senseless, agreeing to put it out for good earns a friend. Sure, the other person might be stuck on some idiotic argument that happened years ago, but are you? Is the argument even valid any longer? Take out your trash, don’t collect it.

Lesson 5 – Stay open

One of my earliest jobs was “IT Support” for a mental health clinic. This was back in the days of DOS, when threads didn’t exist to me and life was good. The place I worked for was more or less a “halfway employer” funded by grants. They took people who were certifiably crazy at one time and offered sheltered employment in an effort to introduce these people back into the working world. Actually, it was more the stress of the working world that they were carefully introducing.

Stuff broke there consistently. From an ancient PBX to hand spliced coax (early days of Ethernet) I really had my hands full. This was interesting because my users were, indeed at least at one time certifiably crazy and usually on at least two types of medications.

The most notable experience is with a person we’ll call “Huck”. Huck was assigned to a job of re-labeling cans of peaches. He had a problem sitting still as well as a problem objectifying others. Since I was the only one that actually picked up the phone, I took the following call:

Huck: I can’t keep doing this

Me: Doing what?

Huck: These labels! I can’t do it

Me: (wondering where his case worker went) Why?


This particular individual stood at almost seven feet in height with over 300 pounds of mass. Think ‘redneck’ in the ultimate sense then add in schizophrenia. If I didn’t take this call, way beyond what I was supposed to be doing, a bear would have segfaulted. I was pretty sure I knew what was up, since I attended most meetings.

Apparently, being sedentary and working with a hot glue gun (the hot part of the glue is what set him off) is what he could not deal with. I figured that out in about five minutes, went to 7-11 and delivered a few tubes of super glue. All was well.

The point is, you don’t know what you’re dealing with until you openly engage someone in a friendly way.

I’m not saying that everyone should follow this to the letter, it’s just some of my experience and adventures that others might find useful.

3 thoughts on “How to become a tolerant person

    1. Tim Post Post author

      I’ve thought about that extensively and have been quite convinced in both directions. I think, broadly it depends mostly on the individual. I know some extremely patient, helpful and tolerant people that are otherwise generally quite melancholy.

      Additionally, extremely impatient people who put considerable effort into being more tolerant (from my own experiences) seem to become much happier people over the long term.

      Still, I don’t think I could say decisively, so my apologies for leaving you with ‘maybe’ :)

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