Compassion and tolerance: Their relationship in a spirit for turbulent times

Yusuf Kaplan


This chapter addresses the relationship between the two terms—compassion and tolerance—by taking a progressive narrative approach through its journey during these turbulent times. Hopefully, it makes reading refreshing, not intolerable: Speaking kindly not painfully about suffering. It is intended to apply as equitably within the environment of the university, as well as outside of it and so student experiences or relationships are not explicitly discussed. The intention is not to exercise the reader beyond reasonable limits. Meditating twice a day from the age of ten, and then attending art school in the early nineties, my writing style tends to be concise or oblique. My sense of mandate here is helping to continue crafting the progressive spirit I bring to my role as Interfaith Adviser at the University of Westminster. I have worked at the university for over ten years, having trained as a chaplain beforehand. I have completed 700 hours with a senior training psychoanalyst (after two years of theory), and am now a member of the Tavistock Community—an international network and place to connect with others, exchange ideas, develop practice, expand learning, and work together in ways that are underpinned by Tavistock Institute methodologies (see also Chapters 4 and 5).

You might want to take sections of material in this chapter to a separate space for further contemplation, as there are registers of meaning beyond those more apparent or immediate. This can give the chapter some anchoring in practice—in whatever way useful for you—or in relation to the notion 1 introduce below as ‘keeping it real’.

The spiritual bearing

We are the Flow and we are the Ebb We are the Weavers, we are the Web

(Source unknown—cited in Blain,

Ezzy, & Harvey, 2004: 132)

To me, this quote suggests ‘we’ take ownership of the story we weave. It also indicates the transcendence of normal human limitation: going in opposite directions, or being both subject as creator (with a small ‘c’) and object as created; and these coexisting as such simultaneously, or at different times transforming between one state and the other. We can understand the cyclical nature of nature. We can build ourselves and our networks, sustaining and maintaining, though inevitably not forever. The title of this book begins with the word ‘towards’, and 1 relate with this as a direction for our future and speaking to ourselves in that regard, and also to our souls. A sense of bearing is critical to carrying on, on the path of life. The spiritual bearing is not wishy- washy (although at times the path may be obscured), and is more than having a moral compass; in essence, it is the direction of one’s whole life. By way of compassion and tolerance, it is being open to opportunities at the turnings of the tide, and like a navigational bearing, it is concerned with life’s journey. On a meta-level, the notion of moving towards also has a sense of meaning, purpose, value, and relevance. The idea of tolerance, and lack of, may become more prominent as a symbolic aspect of intersectional and systemic narratives.

This chapter aims to make a connection between the concept of compassion, as the main theme of the book, and tolerance as a fresh concept. It addresses the kind of kindness that matters in everyday awareness. How tolerance is paired with other concepts such as dignity or respect, or any sort of comparative scriptural review is beyond the scope of this chapter. Rather, the focus here is on frustrations experienced through life as suffering, living out one’s days—a reference to the Tao Те Citing Chapter 33 (as translated by Lau, 1963). The key thematic message in promoting a valued compassionate practice is to keep it real. In other words, this means to do the right thing in the initial shock of suffering, and to maintain openness without the need to take sides or becoming drawn to a polarized position in acceptance or rejection. Normally, the idea of‘living out one’s days’ may be associated with retiring; however, that is not the sense here. Instead, there is possibly an incidental connection with a point of withdrawing from consumerism. To live out is to wear out and to be outside more, exposed to the elements rather than locked indoors or caged by one’s own apprehensions. Living life to the full seems a more contemporary way to say it, arising as a new initiative aimed at life skills for better well-being rather than burnout. Where the sense is to outlive, this connects with the theme of survival, which is discussed later.

To tolerate is defined by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as to allow somebody to do something that you do not agree with or like, and the word comes from the Latin tolerare, meaning to bear, carry, endure, sustain, support, and suffer. In terms of a spiritual bearing, I am not referring to tolerance in any sense to accept without a condition of forbearance. To suffer literally means to bear from below. The environment of suffering is the supporting and humbling medium in which compassion and tolerance can thrive. In this chapter, the intention is to emphasize why tolerance needs to be connected with the discourse about compassion. This is important to improve our understanding of how real compassion can be more effectively brought into the everyday life.

I wonder about an ‘inevitability of suffering’ (Antiss, Passmore, & Gilbert, 2020: 38). Generally, there is certainly no harm in the avoidance of traumatic situations that have a high risk of causing pain. That choice needs to be evaluated with its associated factors. In some cases, experiencing a discomforting degree of pain is naturally inevitable. In others, where experiencing pain that could reasonably be considered avoidable, there will likely be an added idea of loss, and that attachment leads to suffering. So, like this in my opinion, suffering as a compounding factor in pain is mostly optional, understood as wishing the gift of pain as the present reality to be gone, considered as intolerable. We can remain curious about suffering as being more than the mental anguish in relation to not being able to control feelings associated with, or arising from, pain or frustration.

Reality ‘goes hither and thither like a tennis-ball’ (Bliss, 1917: 396). In light of this, let us consider how every interaction creates an experience. There are myriad permutations in the ‘interconnection with all life’ (Blain et al., 2004: 132), and an ancient connection with nature. Though we give great significance in ordering and comparing these experiences, the utility of doing so is questionable in its embarking on a journey through time. Looking beyond mere ritual in search of the known, bringing answers from the past to questions from the future. Looking even further, we see how our humanness arose in response to external stimuli (Bell, 2017), and so arose the link to both qualities of compassion and tolerance.

The spirit of these current times is often characterized by impatience and the intolerance of others, manifesting as decline in street manners; loss of neighbourliness; rise of racism, knife crime; Brexit and its political chicanery; fear, uncertainty, doubt (FUD); immigration narratives; the blight of social media, fake news, reality TV; politics/cult/power of personality, and so on. It could remind one of the 1976 film Network—in which the longterm news anchor Howard Beale declares: ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’. In the film, people everywhere throw open their windows and repeat the catchphrase in screams of protest. DeGraff (2011) suggests that the film can be seen as a parable about how all our screaming really changes very little and, in the act, we often lose our voice. Now the quickening tempo of rapid change makes it hard to tell how life will ever resemble a presumed ‘new normal’; people simply repeat ‘it cannot go back to the way it was’.

Weaving narratives

Storytelling as practice in the culture of indigenous peoples can be thought of as a way of passing on ethical exemplars; however, the material should not be beyond question. Authenticity matters, and sources of tales need to be verified as far as possible. To be found undeservedly hiding behind the practice of another deserves to be called out. If something is credible, that does not make it true, and the question of variance can become haunting for those it touches. The so-called Cherokee proverb of the Two Wolves is one such case, and one we are interested to note, in connection with our theme as it came to me as cited in an academic text (Frost et ah, 2006: 843) while researching compassion, ‘feeding the wolf of compassion’:

He said to them, ‘A fight is going on inside me ... it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too’. They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old Cherokee simply replied ... ‘The one you feed’.

This story in the academic text served as a metaphor for compassion in organizational studies; of a binary choice to resource initiatives, which have either good or bad intentions and outcomes. So metaphorically, in order to promote compassionate organizations, the ‘wolf of compassion’ is the one that is fed, while the other opposing wolf, the selfish or negative one, is starved.

As a meta-narrative, there is something prior to the Cherokee story that has not been able to be verified absolutely, which possibly adds a kind of folklore status to it all. Earlier, Graham (1978) presented this story as an Eskimo’s two dogs, which, as such, is replete with cultural misappropriations presenting as much material in its context as in the content itself. However, that is another story, one that speaks caution to the pioneering spirit. This prior version is also reproduced as follows for ease of reference:

An Eskimo fisherman came to town every Saturday afternoon. He always brought his two dogs with him. One was white and the other was black. He had taught them to fight on command. Every Saturday afternoon in the town square the people would gather and these two dogs would fight and the fisherman would take bets. On one Saturday the black dog would win; another Saturday, the white dog would win—but the fisherman always won! His friends began to ask him how he did it. He said, ‘I starve one and feed the other. The one I feed always wins because he is stronger’ (Graham, 1978: 92)

The ethical aspects of this narrative with respect to animal cruelty, and betting as attributed to an indigenous character are certainly questionable. The Eskimo community raised an objection and so the story was changed to Cherokee, who were less able to object.

I see the weaving of life’s ups and downs; the moral imperative setting the narrative bearing, the trial on the way to righting the wrong, the happy ever after ending and so on. So life is not all ‘good news’ and has the capacity to produce some very sad stories. In a success-oriented culture, we can spare ourselves an unhealthy obsession and do better to remember that, in the end, it is not whether you won or lost, it iss how you played that matters, as the American sportswriter Grantland Rice put it in over a century ago in the poem Alumnus Football (Rice, 1908):

Keep coining back—and though the world may romp across your spine

Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line;

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,

He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.

The spiritual bearing needs to keep a full range of life experiences as its reference points. One could say that positive people only live half a life—although not exactly perhaps, depending on how much perceived negativity is being shut out—in fear of becoming overwhelmed by misfortune. Here I propose a rebalancing around suffering in our relationships with both external and internal stimuli as source of spiritual transformation, and how being rooted to intrapsychic development is understood through concepts such as negative capability. The poet John Keats used this expression in a letter to his brothers, describing it as a concept that prizes intuition and uncertainty above reason and knowledge. That is a capacity for ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries [sic], doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (Keats, 1899: 277).

Bion (1962) adopted the concept of negative capability in his psychoanalytic stance of openness and how the capacity to tolerate frustration is fundamental to infant development in his theory of thinking. For Bion, openness of mind is of central importance not only in a psychoanalytic context, but also in life more generally. There is an association between Keats’s thinking over a century ago, and current Coronavirus pandemic political exhortations to ‘follow the science’ in the wider desire for formulated systems or convention. The editor of the medical journal The Lancet, Richard Horton, comments: ‘the management of COVID-19 represented in many countries, the greatest scientific policy failure in a generation (Horton, 2020: 41). Negative capability—the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made solutions—may offer a compassionate pathway through the current pandemic, and indeed other future uncertainties.

Pleasure and pain

Now 1 turn to the question of how Hindu philosophy can shed light on the relationship between compassion and tolerance. Tracking back to a possible origin led me closer to the common ground between compassion and tolerance, and to the ancient Sanskrit text of the Vaisesika Sutras and to the exegesis of the word dulikha—some say means suffering, others disappointment, here it is termed pain. Marked by a context of diadic comparison, the following passage—as commentary on the text—may provide some illumination here:

The dual number in Pleasure and Pain [su-kha - duh-kha] is intended to point out that both of them are causes of one effect which is distinguished as experience (bhoga) and that they are equally instrumental to the inference of adristam, and also that even Pleasure resolves into Pain’ (Vaisesika Sutras, commentary, I. 1, 7; in Basu, 1923: 19).

So, what is adristam? Though literally unseen, in this context, its meaning should convey something with a sense of opposition to the force or flow of nature, going against the grain, thereby introducing superfluous (overflowing and potentially overwhelming) resistances. Also, as it is the cause of pleasure and pain, and being the opposite of the probably more familiar term dharma, which basically means cosmic law and order, adristam inevitably has some aspects that are ineffable. Becoming ‘free from the pairs of opposites’ (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 5, Verse 3, see Sastri, 1997) is said to be achieved through the aim of renouncing attachment to objects, by the process of transcending those relationships, ‘who is friendly and compassionate [karuna] to all’ and ‘to whom pain [duh-kha] and pleasure [su-kha] are equal’ (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 13, see Sastri, 1997). The adumbration of attributes continues for several verses—with this diad repeated, leading to renouncing one’s possessions, and reaching the extent of even to extol becoming of no fixed abode or houseless (vl8). The point is to find a way through these opposing states to a realm of equanimity.

Now more recently emerging research (Kahriz, Bower, Glover, & Vogt, 2019) seems to show an ironic link between valuing happiness and increased depression. The ancient stoicism that happiness is in very few things (Aurelius, cited in Chrystal, 1902) can be understood in several ways. That it: (i) is rare and therefore precious; (ii) could implore a minimalist or ascetic lifestyle; or (iii) is not worth our obsession in explicitly seeking it or any similar ‘high- arousal positive emotions’ (Kahriz et al., 2019:13; their emphasis).

Compassion is not mindfulness re-invented. My experience has been that the everyday awareness which mindfulness practice cultivates is a prerequisite for compassionate opportunity. Being grounded or anchored in ‘the here and now’ in relation with ephemeral stimuli helps us when keeping it real is being strained, and where there are parts missing in the whole picture. ‘By working in the here and now I mean this in a broad, global way but also in a minute way, and it is related to my understanding of psychic reality in the patient and the analyst’ (Joseph, 2013:1). This meaning expands beyond the psychoanalyst’s couch. It can be quite a challenge to hold this bearing as one’s intermittent attention shifts between moment-to-moment and flow-state in the variance of emphasis between macro and micro ranges of focus. Samuel Beckett (1949), in Waitingfor Godot, brings it down to earth with the analogy of landscape and worms. In other words, we must fill all shades in between the narrow ‘worm’s eye’ view, and wider landscape and scenery around us, as in the many registers of meaning occurring as lived experience.

Any compromise in awareness, especially situational awareness, can obviously have catastrophic consequences. For example in 2006, Comair flight 5191 crashed on takeoff, having turned whilst taxying into the wrong runway. The pilot was the only survivor, who failed to notice visual cues which resulted in 49 fatalities. The pilot’s perception of reality was massively at odds with the actual reality (Health and Safety Executive, 2012). This acute example should provide rationale for reality testing in more everyday situations, where compassion and tolerance will help us to evaluate and mediate better between internal and external worlds, and thus ensure essential survival.

The undertow

In refining one’s spiritual bearing, we may need to relate with all manner of objects along the way and meet the undertow in the vast darkness of diverse experiences. The ‘undertow’ (Armstrong, 1998: 80) articulates things that usually go unsaid. It is, to some extent, against the direction of the current (which among other factors can be driven by natural ebb and flow), and so with reference to adristam above is a cause of suffering. Contentment may be found in surfacing issues that have been drifting unchecked in the undertow. In tolerance of keeping open in the darkness, the grey, and shadow, we keep to a quality of spiritual bearing. We search for understanding without being judgmental, to create a space to reflect on emotions at play: ‘in ways that can reduce stress and conflict, and can inform change and development’ (Halton, 2019:18). How well we fare in this may relate directly with how well we feel in relation with our ambient (non-core) objects, and the wider systems and environment. We will fare better when we remember what stands in the way is inherently illusory. All this in faith there is a better place ahead.

Afterall, the post-truth bearing is not after end of as in lies, it’s new era complexity. Truth mixed with falsehood (as referenced in a hadith recorded by Al-Bukhari; see Khan 2007), further addled by a composite of feelings, in part necessarily negatively held towards the factual aspect of existential reality, and in a way not commodified or packaged before. Similar to how fake news is not even really fake, the confused difference is a variance of interest to the public or more important as in in the public interest. The mixture must be tolerated enough to extract useful strands and disregard the rest, often concluding in rejecting the repeated simple narrative around which the whole mix formed.

Anyway, perhaps feelings are overrated these days, partly on account of the post-truth paradigm. Instead, let us try connecting with underlying emotion and spirit. Feelings are all too often invented as occurring at depth (somewhere, perhaps lost, in the undertow) when rather it is a surfacing experience. Post-truth feelings often are not all that real—hanging from the fatal futility of facts by a bare thread twisted from strands of fake perception copied and pasted from a virtual world. The evidence-based discourse has been starting to wane for a while now. Holmes, Murray, Perron, and Rail (2006) show how the health sciences have been colonized by the paradigm of postpositivism. More recently, and in the context of values of universities in current times of uncertainty, de Rijke (2019:161) noted: ‘In post-truth discourse, trust in accountable evidence-based research has eroded to the extent that identity and populism can outrank argument or expertise’. More blur in posttruth means more need for curiosity, discernment, and critical thinking skills underpinned by tolerance.

The survival essential

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare (1606), Macbeth V.v.)

Compassion has been widely promoted as essential for human survival, notably by his Holiness the Dalai Lama (see Goleman, 2015) and Karen Armstrong (2011; 2019). In understanding this, it can be considered as a wake-up call to our heedlessness, perhaps with shades of the climate change narrative at play. Whereas basic physiological survival for humans is dependent on keeping a body’s core temperature range to within only a few degrees centigrade, it can be further asserted that compassion is an essential ingredient to maintaining an ethical core temperature in the collective sense, primarily in how we relate with each other. In the current heated environment, politically and ecologically, we may look for shelter from the ‘sound and fury’—as in the above Macbeth quote—to take cover under the blanket. The Goldilocks principle, where moving towards a just right ethical core temperature, is universal in this regard.

What survival strategies are worth our attention, I wonder? Thinking long term, does stockpiling not just postpone the inevitable? We have recently seen the toilet paper hoarding phenomenon worldwide in the coronavirus outbreak. Psychological insights about that aside—but for those interested see DePaulo, 2020; Taylor, 2019—more stuff will only run out one day, merely adding to our present day’s burden and making the compassionate stance increasingly unbearable. Being told to keep a biological degree of separation need not imply no chance for real compassion. Rather, keep the virtual in balance and at arm’s length in a practice of digital distancing. When Darwin (1869) started referring to fittest in the fifth edition of his Origin of species, he meant it in the sense of being best fitted or suited in adaptation to the local environment. Adaptation means aiming to get one’s requirements satisfied just right for that time and place. The trouble comes when people expect to get things just right first time.

Without an appreciation of tolerance, there is no latitude or bandwidth, aiming at a precise point due to an idealized or too perfect a mind-set. ‘The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried’. This proverb, attributed to Confucius, points to the origin offail through its relation with fall or stumble, as in stumbling in the dark and muddling through to find the way. Through suffering and improving an insufficient holding of oneself in the present, the master thus achieves a result ever closer to perfection. Having tolerance with others means that people are enabled to try things, and to try out new things with the intention of improving how they do those things, which, in doing so, includes improving the quality of their relationships. Otherwise the fear of failure, even before failure occurs, can be quite disabling. However, How to fail, Elizabeth Day’s (2019) bestseller, illustrates the rise in awareness of a kinder, more compassionate tolerance for failure. Similarly, Sophie Sabbage’s (2018) Lifeshocks: And how to survive them shows how unwanted and unexpected moments in our lives are collision points that can awaken compassionate tolerance.

‘Make do and mend’

Of interest now is the wartime 'make do and mend’ mind-set (Norman, 2007), for two reasons. Firstly, because encouraging resourcefulness and recycling has a definite resonance in the 21st century; secondly, this may be once more become borne out of necessity, and the emphatic proposal here is to stay with that mind-set also in times of relative ease. Especially perhaps in times of relative ease, as that is the better time to practice and hone one’s ability in mending or repairing in preparation for times of future uncertainty. This links to the argument made earlier that negative capability, the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made solutions, might offer a compassionate pathway through uncertainty.

In terms of continuity from the perspective of what has come to pass, this includes mending or repairing to seek improving our condition. It requires tolerance. Every direction could be just another waste of time. Regaining a sense of bearing is critical to carrying on, on the path of life. The opening/ surfacing of possibilities as a basecamp to navigate between accept and reject. For example this is illustrated in a visualization exercise, of my own composition, assuming a place above or beyond frequent human habitation. You might want to take some time to think about stepping out:

You’ve left the big city behind country roads quieter, narrower ... turning into woods that say ‘welcome’ not ‘keep out’... the air richly infused with oxygen by the greenery ... find a stream with water like sap from a tree and all these things nourish the whole being by this enacting ritual... then returning, sharing.

I have used this image because it conveys a sense of a place like that of the one might arrive in the visualization above: The sun warming the resinous pine trees with an uplifting scent, shining through the converging and seemingly interwoven branches decorated with clusters of fallen needles, the stream out of sight, yet to be imagined with sound and sweet essence, just dwelling there ... beyond mobile phone reception. To me, it represents a place to feel at home in nature, at ease with the ‘ebb and flow’ of life, a way for healing and improving one’s condition in living out one’s days. The image can also be seen as experiential portal we have to pass through to arrive at the realm of further insight as proposed in the next section.

Note also that sap is from the Latin sapere, to taste—as in homo sapiens the wise mark of being human. Connecting with nature does much to heal: By reparation, restoring, and returning; also by mending, making amends, and rectifying our ways. Perhaps this is not sequential, improving patterns of repeated behaviour that, in turn, speaks to the aspect of wider systemic or environmental culture that we wish to change.

Tunstall Forest, Suffolk

Figure 10.1 Tunstall Forest, Suffolk.

Source: Photograph taken by Yusuf Kaplan, 14 June 2020

Into the realm of tolerance

Go and open the door.

Even if there’s only the darkness ticking,

even if there’s only

the hollow wind,

even if


is there,

go and open the door.

Extract from ‘The Door’ by Miroslav Holub (1923—1998), reproduced by kind permission of Patrick Pietroni (2019).

Thinking of the door as metaphorical portal to another world, and looking at its character as a liminal holding space in its own right; in its degrees of twilight from day into night or from night into day in 1’heure bleue (the blue hour) with its absence of shadow, betwixt, and between polar opposite states with its distinct quality of thirdness. A sense of expansive spaciousness mediates every kind of thought or feeling in that hour, the oppression lifting, and the need for change welcomed with ‘at least a draught' (from another stanza in Holub’s poem) needed to catch the fire of change. The ‘darkness ticking’ is empty yet loaded, comparable to a heightened awareness in a deafening silence, which also need not be only negative. The shadow is within the whole self.

When set with a reciprocal sense, every detail is seen as a view of the whole; rather than Beckett’s (1949) sense of either the landscape (zooming out) or the worms (zooming in). In sub-holistic terms (a neologism to be found in Sharif, Shah, Mohsin, & Raza, 2013), Koestler’s (1967: 49) Iwlon ‘symbolizes the missing link—or rather series of links—between the atomistic approach of the behaviourist and the holistic approach of the Gestalt psychologist’. Holonic sub-systems exhibit the ‘polarity of part and whole in the hierarchic order of life’ (Heron, 1992:15). Between ebb and flow is the turning tide of life; by which I mean a kind of middle distance that is ranged between beginning and end, or perhaps thought of as the least movement between full and empty. The concept of‘holon’, and the idea of something that is simultaneously a whole and a part, helps to comparably articulate where tolerance enters a system (see also Chapter 12 for further discussion of general systems theory).

The idea of the macro being thought of as inversely contained in the micro maybe a little jarring for someone whose imagination is not so pliable. Let us compare our world as William Blake (1757—1827) did, to just one grain of sand. Now imagine a beach as an expanse of piled-up world-sized grains on another infinitely more massive world. See how expansive a tolerant outlook can become?

Mindful minute timer

Figure 10.2 Mindful minute timer.

Source: Made and photographed by Yusuf Kaplan, IS September 2020

The ‘mindful minute timer’ (see Figure 10.2), mentioned in Chapter 4 of this volume, which was used at the beginning and end of action learning meetings, was made out of recycled water bottles and sand.

When making the timer, it took a while to get the bore diameter through the neck piece—two bottle caps glued and taped end-to-end—exactly right for the half pound of grains of sand used. However, once this was accomplished, the symbolic hourglass (constructed in the spirit of ‘make do and mend’ discussed above) became the door by which to then enter a new compassionate space. This new space provided brief shelter for its occupants— the action learning comrades in adversity—to tolerate the turbulence now residing on the metaphorical ‘other side of the door’. As its maker, I felt I was being a little more enthusiastic than the others in the group to view such a crude reused object, a slightly uncomfortable thing-in-itself, as worthless focus (or even despised because these half-litre plastic bottles litter our planet) for witnessing the visible passing of precious time, and to go with that flow. To me, it speaks to the spirit of our current yet timeless need to pause and reset—ending before beginning, where we are with just what we have in that minute, individually then globally.

The door can also be thought of as an intersection—the place of changing direction—in the weaving of a narrative (introduced in Chapter 4). The soul needs the traverse ups and downs of life as weft, to run over and under the modest, tolerant, and compassionate longitudinal threads as world view, as the warp, to weave a cloak of warmth. Just as the body needs a cloak of warmth for survival. This leads us to consider the empathic middle ground between acceptance and rejection—the place of suffering, learning, and healing—the realm of tolerance. It is a real place. One of the six dimensions of emotional stability (see Chaturvedi & Chandler, 2010) is aggression versus tolerance. Tolerant people can manage their emotions effectively. This does not mean being repressed. It means that particularly uncomfortable feelings are processed in the moment—or at least without unnecessary delay—as there is the mentalizing capacity to do so, in a way that is also tempered by a mildness of manner. This is a major factor in a person’s mental well-being. If something is unacceptable, that does not make it intolerable. A key question is: Is there such a thing as constructive ambiguity in a way that helps people understand better how to handle uncertainty in these turbulent times?

Looking at the Kiibler-Ross (1969) model of the five stages of grief in terminal illness, which is also used in change management, there is a middle ground centred on bargaining. We need to appreciate the grey area of uncertainty, and be prepared to walk away with nothing (tolerating and transcending pleasure and pain, as above—Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 12, Verse 18, see Sastri, 1997), in order to receive healing and a sense of holonic completeness in exchange. Tolerance is an attitude to be valued or perhaps a habit, where toleration is more its characteristic behaviour in action. The term ‘attitude’ in everyday language has negative connotations these days, for example: ‘I don't like your attitude’. Like the Two Wolves story mentioned earlier, the wolf of compassion and kindness, and the wolf of anger and greed (Frost et al., 2006), similarly, though long since out of vogue: ‘our virtues are habits as much as our vices’ (James, 1899: viii). It used to be said that patience is a virtue, now seldom to be heard, much less to be found.

Tolerance in current times

Perhaps there is a way through here to current times; for example by explaining that the real ‘identity fraud’ is not the stealing of bank accounts, it is rather an attitude marked by the failure to live one’s own life. 1 referred before to the one who lives out their days. They are said to have a long life (Tao Те Ching, chapter 33, in Lau, 1963), experiencing every moment, not wasting time. Or as Le Guin (1998) translates it: ‘To live till you die is to live long enough’. Will we realize or fulfil our potential? All too often these days there is a lazy tendency to imitate ideals so readily available ‘off-the- peg’ from all the bloat of hypermedia and apps for everything. The realm of compassion has not been spared unfortunately, and we must tolerate (and process) the intrusion of pollutants in a way already described, as in the name of wellness becoming only accessible through accessorized intermediary products. To say the response to the manifestations caused by the spirit of these current times is all about feelings (Davies, 2018), when it is not so simple, seems however on a meta-level to be quite accurate—in an age of emotional intelligence, where common sense is not so common, and compassionate empathy is more sophisticated than its cognitive or emotional counterparts.

There are also paradoxical and indeterminate aspects to contemplate. The paradox of no toleration of the intolerant is potentially dangerous (Forst, 2017). It can run into debate around the idiomatic the terrorists have won rhetoric. Also, there is the meta-aspect in the aim to just tolerate—contend, or perhaps be content with—tolerance itself, which is neither drawn to accept nor reject the exercise of tolerance. The acceptance of tolerance and its accompanying experience of suffering is not really a happy place. Except in some initial pleasurable condition, or in the gaining of some wisdom. Conversely, the rejection of tolerance does nothing to shut out the experience of suffering. The act of rejecting attacks the linking of oneself with external world, and so is not really a happy place also, perhaps making things worse as well.

The one constant in life is change, the inevitable (not the suffering), and according to Menzies (1960:108, emphasis added), change is ‘to some extent, an excursion into the unknown’, and resistance to serious change can manifest as ‘social chaos and individual breakdown’; then as resistances shape up in need of being bypassed or broken, to ‘give up known ways of behaviour and embark on the unknown were felt to be intolerable’ (Menzies, 1960:118). Note the vector distinction of into (the unknown) as immersive direction of action and awakening to the unknowability, as opposed to on as transporter or vehicle of acting, and suffering.

To conclude

I leave you with some idea about how compassion relates with tolerance, as particularly relevant in the spirit of finding a way through these turbulent times. This includes how the intrinsic sense of what it means to tolerate can be present in the real experience of every compassionate action. For me, writing this chapter has raised a number of questions for further reflection around the relationship between compassion, tolerance, and the notion of spiritual bearing. For example, in regard to COVID-19: [1]

Though now in ending, it is to be hoped this arrives at a conceptual place recognizably not intolerable, and still within an exercised appreciation for active compassionate practice. The tolerating of uncertainty with compassion is one of the underlying basic components in developing life skills. Without active frustrations providing shape and ‘walking’ shadow, our world is plunged into the disconnected darkness of what sense of life we can make of it ourselves. Inner work with compassion, generating courage, means more likelihood of sharing in activities with our neighbours, for example, to further keep it real and exercise the ‘bandwidth’ of tolerance. Then, when shapes appear, and some certainty replaces the absence of formative experience, we move into a tolerating function of a different kind. The kind feelings must fit appropriate to that new form of identity now filled.

Writing this chapter has occupied a great deal of my time over the last year or so, having received a Compassion In The Workplace & Colleague Wellbeing Award at the University, and before that from beginnings with involvement in the programme of the action learning set (as described in Chapters 4 and 5) and establishing a Compassionate Action Group. A lot of perseverance has been required, practising the tolerance about which I am writing, and honing the words from intermittent streams of consciousness through to something a little more coherent. Working on it in so many different places, and keeping with that uncertainty whilst writing, many ideas for so long held in that realm of tolerance have not been included in the final version, so there is surplus material for further publication. These ideas are at least infused with the spirit of compassion and will hopefully go on to inform and influence my future writing.


In writing this chapter, it has been an exercise of compassionate action, not just with myself as one might expect—but with others involved too. I would like to acknowledge friends, strangers, students, and colleagues with whom 1 spent time mostly informally, sometimes accidentally, in speaking and sharing ideas and experiences. In addition, 1 would particularly like to thank my colleague David Morris, Assistant Interfaith Adviser at the University of Westminster, for his compassionate conversations and feedback on earlier versions of the chapter.


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  • [1] What kind of compassionate society can emerge from the initial pandemic situation? • How will we live better in the understanding after this experience? • Why does tolerance keep showing up as a guiding attribute in times ofcrisis?
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