The International Day for Tolerance is observed this week, although the devastating conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine and elsewhere show that we have a long way to go before there is much to celebrate. From our relative safety and distance, we can see international conflicts with detached clarity; naming the atrocities as unacceptable without having to ‘take sides.’ It’s clear that if only people stopped fighting war with more war, then the problems would stop escalating and other solutions could be found.
But how often do we apply such rational thinking in our own lives? When someone deliberately harms us, do we resist the temptation to retaliate? Do we pause to wonder what pain or distress caused them to act out that way, and work towards alleviating their distress? Or do we decide that their behaviour is unacceptable, and respond with equally unacceptable behaviour of our own?
It’s common to think of our own actions in terms of our reasons and intentions, whilst simultaneously judging the actions of others in terms of their impact on us. Without stopping to wonder about the inner experience of the other, our first response is often to assume that if we are right, then they must be wrong. From there it is a short step to labelling them as bad or inhuman, thus justifying our treatment of them.
Luckily, we are not slaves to these automatic responses. We can learn to pause, consider our shared humanity and look for better ways to respond. Through careful reflection, we may discover that the real enemy is not the person we have been fighting. It is our own automatic wish to retaliate, egged on by those who benefit from seeing the fighting continue.
Stephanie Hills ©