All in a Word

Words are powerful things. We count on them to convey meaning. And sometimes they do their job too well.

Just last month, an former colleague told me how proud she was that she was tolerant of a young man I admire.

“Tolerant?” I asked. “What does that mean, exactly?”

She went on to explain that though she didn’t share my friend’s beliefs, she was proud that she could allow him space to be wrong. And with that statement, she exposed her emotions precisely.

It became clear, as we talked, that the word “tolerant” carried tremendous power for her. In her mind, the word masked its own meaning. To those who heard it, the word passed judgment; it meant, “I am right and he is wrong, but I’m a big enough person to allow him to be wrong.” And that’s sad.

How much better, had she been able to say “I respect him,” or “I understand him,” or “I sympathize with him.” Any one of those may have been the meaning she meant for us to hear.

Instead, she was “tolerant.”