Two days ago, my husband and I were sleeping in a hotel in Tallinn, Estonia. At around 3 AM we woke up to the loud sounds of two men just back from the pub. For an hour, they talked together very loudly in the room just next to ours. They then came out of the room and continued their conversation just outside our and their doors. They had absolutely no consideration for other people in the hotel. They couldn’t. They were drunk. They were unaware that their behavior had any impact on anyone else.
The concept of “the other” has occupied my mind for years. There is always an “other”. Each of us is an “other” to someone else or even to many others. How important is it for us to understand the “other”? What happens when, no matter how hard we try, we do not understand certain behaviors the “other” engages in? Are there behaviors we can accept no matter how foreign and others we simply cannot accept? What happens when the “other” engages in behaviors we absolutely do not accept? Can we accept other aspects of that “other”? What if those behaviors we cannot accept have an impact on us, directly or indirectly? What kind of a relationship can we have with an “other” who engages in such behaviors?
Drinking alcohol is one example of a behavior that some “others” cannot tolerate. Homosexuality is another. Wearing the hijab or the face veil is a third. Smoking a fourth. Believing in God, not believing in God, praying in public, taking time off work to pray, eating meat, wearing too many clothes, not wearing enough clothes, public displays of affection, polygamy; these are just some things off the top of my head that one “other” feels very passionately about and another “other” feels very strongly against.
I have never understood why people drink alcohol. I pretend to tolerate it when people drink in my presence because I feel that I have to. But the reality is that I cannot stand the smell of it and I do not like the effect it has on people, even in moderation. I have heard so many people say that drinking in moderation does not change them. I see a change. It makes me uncomfortable.
Does this mean that I do not befriend people who drink? No. But it does mean that I am uncomfortable when they engage in this behavior. On the other side of it, those same friends, most of them, are just as uncomfortable if they feel they need to moderate their normal drinking behaviors because of me. And I know of many people who are uncomfortable visiting an “other” who does not serve alcohol in their home.
Some people take a black or white attitude to all this: They will simply not befriend or engage with people who drink alcohol. They will simply have absolutely nothing to do with a woman who covers her face with a veil. In fact, they will often go so far as to be all out against those behaviors and to try to stop them from happening.
But there are others, like me, who do not see the world as black and white but as a wonderful rainbow of colors. Yet we struggle. We do not understand certain behaviors of others. We may even see them as inherently wrong. Yet we want to try to understand. Perhaps, if we understood, we could become more accepting or at least a little bit more tolerant. As someone else’s “other”, we ourselves want to be better understood and accepted for who we are. We realize understanding and acceptance needs to go both ways. Many of us, though, admittedly, have our limits.
Actually, is there anyone who is tolerant and accepting of all “others”? Is there anyone who is able to accept and/or befriend any sort of other no matter their behavior? Or is it that most of us are limited in our ability to accepting only “others” and behaviors that we can understand? Or is understanding not the critical factor? Do some of us only accept “others” who accept us? If we, as individuals, ascribe to a certain set of religious or ethical guidelines, how far can we go in accepting others who ascribe to another set of religious or ethical guidelines that can, sometimes, be contrary to our own? Where do we draw the line? Do we need to draw a line? Are there certain things that we can accept, despite them being contrary to our own personal guidelines, because they are acceptable in our wider society? Are there other things we cannot accept simply because they are not acceptable in our wider society? An example that comes to mind is how homosexuality is becoming socially acceptable in Western societies whereas polygamy (and here I mean mutually consensual polygamy) is not. Do vegetarians and vegans accept or tolerate meat eaters because meat eating is a socially acceptable behavior even though they might be strongly against the killing of animals for food? Are vegetarians expected to be all right with sitting at the same table with a meat eater?
I wonder how much of people’s interactions with “others” is acting rather than genuine. It’s important that people be civil with each other, but do they have to be tolerant as well? Do they have to be accepting? Do they have to be understanding?
Or is it all as simple as: I can accept the alcohol drinker but not the alcohol drinking. I can accept the smoker but not the smoking. I can accept the homosexual but not the homosexual act. I can accept the woman in the face veil but not the act of wearing a face veil. I can accept the polygamist but not polygamy. I can accept the meat eater but not the meat eating.
And when we do reach this particular level of acceptance of an “other”, if we look deep inside ourselves, are we truly accepting or are we really just being civil in order to allow the people of this world to get along? Or is it, perhaps, an act of acceptance in order to be accepted?
I am an “other” to many. Many are an “other” to me. In my struggle to be a better human being, I do not always find it easy to be accepting and tolerant. I am not even sure I need to always be accepting and tolerant. But I still try. Do you?