“Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.” — Helen Keller
Is this about a bicycle? Well, no, not really.
There is a tremendous amount of effort required to learn to balance a bicycle…or anything else. Most of us don’t remember the work that went into that, because it was so long ago. “You never forget how to ride a bike.” That’s what they tell us, and to a large degree, it’s true. Even after you’ve been away from riding, you can get right back on, put your feet on the pedals, and go.
I’m not so sure, though, about Helen Keller’s contention. Indeed, toleration requires effort at the start. But I think that the two are unlike each other because toleration often requires a readjustment when you haven’t thought about it for awhile. New facts, opinions, and differing approaches to life all require us to reexamine our own perspectives, and to figure out how we will incorporate them into our own thoughts. It’s not the same as getting back on the bike (which is the same now as it was oh so many years ago when we first learned to ride). The only constant is that everything changes. So we must change too.
But…we MUST admit that having differing opinions is not the same as intolerance. At the same time, we MUST admit that toleration is not the same as professing those thoughts/taking those actions/holding those opinions ourselves. And we MUST be willing to have conversations about our different experiences, thoughts, hopes, beliefs. We MUST NOT brand those who disagree with us as intolerant. Perhaps some are, but a person who merely has different opinions than I do means only that that person is not me! Nor would I want everyone to be me. That would be a boring world indeed.
Maybe if we worked a bit harder at toleration, it would become easier. We may find relevance…and a need for change…in some of the things others say. We may learn that someone else’s approach to things works better than ours. And eventually, we may see that it’s almost as easy as getting back on the bike.
Perhaps you weren’t so far off, Ms. Keller!
For more on bicycling and equity, see this post: “Riding and Not Seeing.”