My mom worked as assistant to the Eastern Regional Sales Manager of Fujifilm on the 80th floor of the Empire State building at age 18, where her boss playfully pushed her as she leaned out her window, in the Washington National Cathedral as executive assistant to a Dean willful enough to show up 30 minutes late to a meeting with Vice President Al Gore, and as executive assistant to the Executive Director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, an organization full of veterans whose endeavors to orchestrate a parade in D.C. were periodically interrupted by war flashbacks. Now she works as a media assistant in a middle school library. It is easily as challenging as these other positions.
The school is 13 minutes from Gaithersburg, Maryland, which recent studies have ranked as one of the most diverse cities in the nation, and the students and staff are an explosion of diversity in almost every possible sense of the word: no two students share the same confluence of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, education, and values. Such a setting, county administrators thankfully understand, requires utmost sensitivity. And so, every fall, faculty members are required to attend training sessions in which the county prescribes tools for approaching this ever-blooming diversity. The linchpin, they explain, is "tolerance."
My mom had arrived home and relayed this to me as she leaned back into our couch, shaking her head and looking out the window. As the daughter of world-traveling journalist parents and a person who is open to the world, sealed to her soul is an unwavering devotion to love and respect. We are proud of our county for its pursuit of a unified, diversified space; but there is a difference, she said, between tolerance and appreciation. To tolerate is to put up with, to be civil. It carries no weight whatsoever. The goal in a shared environment where everyone is of a different background should be to appreciate—to attempt to understand, to respect where others come from and what they have to offer. I said she was right and she made a good point. She said that was why she had raised her hand and said all of this during the training session that day.
"Tolerance," "appreciation," and "respect," are just words, yes. But words are powerful and nuanced. Writers spend hours sculpting on pages to find words with exactly the right weight and color. Battles ensue over the repossession of age-old labels because labels are heavy and shackling, and do not easily shed their history. The argument in favor of such renovation is that our language is not static—it merely has the illusion of absolution, because all of it ultimately springs from the human mind and human idiosyncrasy. But perhaps that makes our responsibility to distinguish between and understand the nuances of our language even greater, because even as language finds its own way, we are charged with the hefty task of understanding the myriad implications of a single word.
One tolerates a child kicking the back of one's seat on a plane out of solidarity with the preoccupied mother of three. One tolerates the loud phone conversation of another person within a confined, shared space because there is no other space to share. One tolerates a pesky guest indulging in more than their fair share of available refreshments. One tolerates annoyances. To tolerate is to permit and endure. Yes, there is a tributary definition involving respect of others' beliefs, but accompanied by the weight of connotation, tolerance is resigning oneself, accepting that which cannot be changed. Tolerance is without sight and without a desire to see.
Appreciation is intimate and deep, and requires understanding, insight, empathy, and the sharing of oneself, because it intimates a desire to know someone. One appreciates a mother's struggles. One appreciates the need for connection and the form this need takes. One appreciates the glorious randomness of another being and the opportunity to see it. To appreciate is to be fully aware of and to realize; to be thankful and show gratitude; it is to admire and to value. True appreciation is a form of true love, because in truly appreciating, we cannot help but become enthralled by the nuances of another. We are taken, moved, and changed by our understanding.
Our goal as a people can not be so mere as to tolerate one another. We can aspire to more. There is a need for appreciation on a global scale, not just removed civility, truce, agreement to disagree, or resigned permission. There is a need for warmth. We are a people rich with diversity and uniqueness that is too often mistaken for a blockade and an annoyance when it is in truth a strength and a prize. There is a need for the unique love that forms with even an inkling of understanding and respect, seeds that bear the most limitless of fruits, because to merely tolerate is to dismiss the gravity of others as well as what in oneself yearns to grow from these denied connections. This is a natural, human truth, and one my mom, her brother, and their parents, have known their entire lives.