I tell my mother the topic is tolerance.
“Hmm” she says. “Maybe you should change it to ‘fed up’”.
I ask her to list the things she is most intolerant of these days, thinking that she will launch into a commentary on the state of the world, the deplorable condition of the political framework, terrorism, mass shootings, the economy, the racial divide, abuses towards women, all things she has plenty to say about on any given day.
Instead she says: “Grunginess”. I should have known. If my mother had been a Miss America contestant, her version of a wish for ‘world peace’ would have been a wish for ‘world grooming’. She is, after all, someone who goes out to do yard work dressed, accessorized and with her ‘face’ absolutely on.
She is quiet for a moment and then adds, “Oh and poor cooking. Anyone can follow a simple recipe, there’s no excuse for a bad meal.” She adds to that her dismay at people who bring a tub of Mrs Kinser’s chicken salad or an unopened bag of greens along with bottled dressing to a potluck. “Whatever happened to making an effort?” I point out that many people do not have her prodigious talents in the kitchen and lack confidence. Or maybe they are busy. She says: ‘That’s no excuse.’
Cooking skills can be learned to a certain extent but a meal is elevated to an art form with an intuitive sense of touch, timing and proportion. My mother possesses that particular savoir faire and is a deft, enviable cook. Though she insists that anyone can follow a recipe on their own, I have distinct memories of her snatching biscuit dough out of my hands telling me that I was pawing it and would end up with door stops.
The Oxford Desk dictionary defines the word tolerate as: “Allowing the existence or occurrence of without interference.” The big book of Alcoholics Anonymous declares: “Love and tolerance of others is our code.” The word ‘tolerance’ appears elsewhere in AA literature 15 times and is foundational to our success in sobriety; we are people that displayed boundless tolerance for substance abuse but little to none for the opinions and behaviors of others. In our fellowships we learn to accept and even appreciate those behaviors and opinions spouted by people from every high and low of society, comprising every belief, every perspective, every personality type and every tic on the human scale. And if we are persistent and diligent at the work of recovery we eventually turn that acceptance towards ourselves and carry it into our “…sometimes deranged family lives” (Twelve and Twelve step 12, pp 111, 112) and beyond.
At the close of many meetings, AA members gather in a circle, hold hands and recite either the Lord’s Prayer or part of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
And there is no greater wisdom than the recognition that: ‘the courage to change the things I can’ applies to me and me only.
My mother keeps track of newcomers to her morning meeting and makes a point of gravitating towards them, particularly those that are unwashed, downcast and unable to make eye contact. She welcomes them, she squeezes their hands at the close of the prayer, urging them to ‘keep coming back’; she learns their names and greets them if they return. She abides the looser talkers, the cross talkers, the grandstanders, the newly sober and the not yet sober. In the rooms of AA, she is kind and full of forbearance.
It is everywhere else that she occasionally slips in the ‘without interference’ department. I can’t really fault her though—I am rarely short on critical thinking—about me, about you, about anything. But take away the tolerance and the love that leavens it into bread worth sharing and there is there is no good will or peace to be found. I learned that the hard way with my beloved cousin Neel who tumbled down a rabbit hole of fear, insecurity, depression and displacement on the back end of middle age. She could not rise above it—she couldn’t remember daylight, and wept in despair through every conversation we had. I say conversation but on my end, it was an incessant pep talk, urging her to do this, that or the other thing to pull her life together. When that didn’t work, I just fell silent. But it wasn’t tender, supportive silence, it was the kind of recoiling muteness that causes a person like me to emotionally flee the premises, fearing that I might catch the misery if I don’t interfere, if I just let it be. At one point Neel lifted her head and gazed at me long enough to say:
“I can feel your disdain.”
If I was going to catch anything, thank God I caught those words and let them bring me to my own despair. Here was someone I loved like a sister that needed nothing from me but compassion and I wouldn’t or couldn’t give it.
Over time Neel recovered and found purchase on happy ground. She forgave me for my failure to love her well, though I don’t know that I ever fully forgave myself. I did emerge from that experience with a fervent prayer for a heart change, one that usually comes from remembering the pain that we’ve inflicted on those we care for. I am not entirely free of the intolerance that communicates as contempt but I do notice it a lot quicker. Once I am aware I can usually put the breaks on long enough to cough out a short cut serenity prayer: ‘Help. Please help!’ I ask for mercy and the next right step or word. I don’t have to feel it to mean it—and that has been a revelation to me.
As is often said in 12 step culture—it’s a simple program but never easy. We alcoholics show up because we’ve been bottle whipped and are unable to control our drinking. If we stay and if we take the suggested steps beyond theory into action we find that we learn a better way of living and being in community. Selfish ambitions to get what we can get and control what we can control gradually give way to a desire to love well, to treat others as we would like to be treated, to change the world, one act of kindness at a time.
Despite her impatience with grooming and cooking habits, my mother embodies these principles. She told me the other day that there was a new member in her senior center rummy cube group. The woman told my mother she had a birthday coming up and when my mother asked if she was going to have a party she replied:
“I’ve never had a birthday party.”
“Never? Not even when you were a little girl?”
In the telling, mom said to me: “Can you imagine never once being celebrated?” This, of course, was something my mother would absolutely NOT tolerate so she told her friend: “Well, I love parties and I’m going to have one for you.”
It seemed simple enough, until the woman gave mom a lengthy list of dietary restrictions. A cake would be out of the question and mom said she might have to sneak a tiny bit of butter into one dish to make it work. But in the middle of wondering how she was going to pull it all together into any kind of memorable meal and feeling a little sorry for her offer, she heard from her friend who said she’d been singing to herself all morning:
“I’m going to have a birthday party, I’m going to have a birthday party.”
I used to wonder why the Big Book paired love and tolerance together as a code—kind of like putting warm colors with cool ones. But I understand that without tolerance there is no love—and without the love—there is no tolerance. One begets the other, to use one of my favorite biblical verbs. I don’t know how the birthday party went but I imagine it was a great success because whatever sweetness was lost in the absence of flour, milk, butter and sugar, was found and leavened with love.