Some people make tolerance look like simple common sense. Like my friend, Kathy, my lunch date on Tuesday.
That just happened to be the day of our nation's most recent gun rampage, at a Jewish community center in suburban Los Angeles. Five people were wounded, three of them tiny children. More kids might have been shot had they not just left for a field trip to--how strangely apt--the Museum of Tolerance.
Clearly, confessed gunman Buford O. Furrow has a serious tolerance problem.
Recently, so do I. I'm feeling awfully intolerant of people like Furrow who see something heroic about spraying gunfire at toddlers--or at any unarmed, unresisting soul. I'm feeling intensely unaccepting of those linked to hate groups, grown men and women who can't grasp what the smallest child knows:
Bullies, whether armed with epithets or Uzis, are cowards.
So I was lucky to have scheduled lunch with one of the best possible people to put tolerance in perspective.
Kathy, who in May earned her master's degree in social work, isn't an "expert"--one of the psychologists, legal eagles or law enforcement officials to whom the media flock after tragedies.
She's just a friend, a wife and a mother who--with her husband, Bob, a software company manager who for years avoided the "fast track" to maximize his time with their kids--raised three children in such a way that it is impossible to imagine them behaving intolerantly.
She's also exactly the kind of person we hear too little about.
I say this partly because I know her kids. Kathy and Bob, who are white, are immensely proud of all of their children: their daughter, 20, a college senior whose first serious boyfriend was gentle, ambitious--and black; their younger son, 22, a musician in a multiracial hip-hop group; and their elder son, 25, who dated an Asian girl and now works for a public interest group on labor and environmental issues.
None of their kids sought multiracial relationships. They merely refused to shut anyone out. Which shouldn't be special, but is. I told Kathy, 52, as much over lunch, confessing that, as a black person, I'd long wondered how anyone raised in a well-off WASP enclave (Lake Forest, Ill.) without a single poor, minority or Jewish friend, could be so embracing.
As a child, she explained, "I looked at what my religion (Catholicism) taught. And then I looked at what the Constitution said." Between them, it was clear that discriminating for any reason "was just wrong. . . . It was so clear."
Simple common sense, she suggested.
So why is tolerance so uncommon a notion for some others? Why does Kathy's decision to live a tolerant life--made 40 years ago by a child who accepted God's admonition to love and the Constitution's promise to protect--seem rare?
But maybe she isn't alone. Maybe there are millions of Kathys and Bobs, but we don't hear about them on the evening news. In fact, we need to be reminded that such people exist, to spend as much time and energy focusing on their successes as on the failures of the intolerant.
Certain failures are difficult to ignore. Also in the news: the fatal beating of a gay soldier in his barracks; the rampant spread in Africa of AIDS, a disease that has orphaned more than 8 million children worldwide; the more than 700,000 Americans who have joined the ranks of the "extremely poor"--$6,750 for a family of three--during our celebrated prosperity.
That most of us can read such things and take another sip of Starbucks suggests we are quite accepting of the wrong things. The challenge is to become more tolerant in the right way--compassionate enough about strangers that we find their pain as outrageous and unacceptable as our own. What does that require?
Common sense, according to Kathy.
No one asks to be born white or black, poor or wealthy, gay or straight, she theorizes. Each of us is given the lot we receive for reasons that only God, or fate, can explain. So those who would hate or discriminate based on superficial factors haven't asked themselves the most obvious, tolerance-inducing question:
What if it were me? What if I were the one who was poor, Latino, black, whatever I'm tempted to reject? But for a twist of fate, I could be.
Tolerant people think like that. Yet being intolerant is "so easy," Kathy acknowledges. "It's the line of least resistance for the discouraged--seeing those who are Jewish or handicapped or a different skin color and making them the enemy."
For people like her, hatred is the real enemy--not that she'd ever put it that way.
"I don't think we ever said to our children, 'This is how you should behave toward people,' " Kathy says. "It was just part of the fabric of our lives."
How simple. How obvious. How, it seems lately, uncommon.