Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tolerance… or just sitting it out?

Tolerance is an ugly word, and while we are taught to be tolerant, to accept the possible clumsiness or misunderstandings of others, we tend to equate tolerance with weakness, with appeasement (in a Neville Chamberlain kind of way). It becomes a begrudging acceptance of events and actions we probably shouldn’t put up with.

But certain stories and events in recent times have led me to revalue tolerance; and in these particular cases it’s not so much tolerating and more to do with stopping, breathing, not reacting, just letting things unfold: just sitting it out.

At a recent performance of true stories called Barefaced Stories – a wonderful knew phenomenon to appear in the world of performance – I heard a guy tell a story which I at first thought unimpressive and pedestrian, but later realised was significant to me (and clearly to others because his story won the competition).

His story goes like this: when he was a young boy he failed at school and his mother was desperate to find a way for him to improve, so she used positive reinforcement. She heard him talking about a particular toy: a battery operated sword thing that his mates had and he didn’t and really wanted. In fact he was obsessive about wanting it! So she told him she’d buy him one if he studied and improved his grades at school. He studied hard at everything, swatted and slaved at his books, at school, at home. And bingo, he went from being at the bottom of the class to the top of the class. He even won an award for improvement. So he went to his mum and asked about the toy sword. She rang the toy store and they went down to get it but the shop had run out. He had to wait. And after a series of amusing circumstances where it really looked like he was going to get the toy – the boy and his mum were never there at the right time – the mum finally turned around to him one day and said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough of you and your silly sword. You’re not getting it. It’s over” (words to that effect). The boy was upset and confused; it was a deal and he’d very much upheld his end of it. What was going on? What had he done to deserve this? At this point in the story-telling the guy just jumped to the present and kept talking about his mum, how she was nursing her own mother through ill-health and how much he loved his mum for her kindness and concern for her family.

And here the story ends. No explanation for the mum’s weird actions. No angry scenes between him and his mum. No resolution at all, apart from the fact that he got over it. He remembered it, clearly, and it mattered to him, but he got over it. And the beauty of his telling was the very fact that he didn’t explain what might have been going on for his mum. He left that up to us to think about.

Recently I’ve been hanging out with a woman, a friend who is much younger than I, who speaks language I find bizarre but amusing: ‘povo’ instead of poor, ‘whatevs’ instead of whatever and ‘stealth’ as a replacement for great or excellent. She claims that these are abbreviations, but I of course retort with the fact that ‘povo’ has one more syllable than poor, even though I like rhythm and sound of ‘povo’ in the manner of ‘wacko’ or ‘sicko’. But the linguistic difference is fun. What wasn’t fun, at first, was her inability to leave a house in less than fifteen minutes. Now this is a problem I’ve had with many women: the whole charade of preparing to go out. It’s been the subject of lots of comedians’ routines. “Okay, you get ready darling, and I’ll go finish my Phd”. “Oh, you’re doing your make up. Okay I’ll change the diff on the car and retile the roof. Call me when you’re ready!”

Now, my new friend is different, her inability is more of a disability, a bona fide neurosis regarding the process of leaving a building. And it’s not just about checking doors and locks and irons that might be left on, it’s way more than that. Now, I don’t want to name her problem, in the same way that I wouldn’t expect her to talk about my various mental problems in a public place (as this is). But I bring this up because at first I was fuming! ‘How the fuck can she expect me to just stand here waiting for her to faff about? We’ve got things to do, places to go, lives to live!’ Then after a while I just figured ‘oh well, it’s what she does’ and I learnt to tolerate it, and then to actually like it. In fact I started using that time to stop, to breathe, to do nothing. If I had to leave a building quickly – say to go and do a gig or get to an appointment, an audition or a voice over say, well…I wouldn’t put us through that, and this isn’t that kind of relationship so it’s not going to happen.

Perhaps the fact that we’re just friends is why I’m far more tolerant of her, and she of me. Whatever…the fact of the matter is that in the past I have been extraordinarily intolerant of people I’ve been close to, and I’d like to say I’m sorry for doing a kind of Rumplestiltskin act – jumping and cursing – just because I’ve had to wait a bit, or listen, or ponder a problem or just be there for some one.

As an end note, I’d like to say that there are situations to be intolerant: taxi drivers who try to tell you about groups of people they hate; people who talk through the news when you’ve both sat down to watch  and 'listen' to it; yelling at and smacking children; hurting pets – the list is probably endless, but no less endless than the ‘reasons to be kind’ list.