Friday, October 21, 2011

Could it be that age makes us more tolerant?

Does growing older make a person more or less tolerant? I can't decide.

I have a friend I love dearly. This friend actually made me homemade chicken soup last week when I was sick -- left work early, bought the ingredients, brought it to my house and sat with me while I ate the first warm, wonderful bowl. Who does things like that? Not my husband. Not my family. This friend.

So that probably explains why I didn't want to hit her with a club when she began extolling the virtues of a certain presidential candidate. It also probably explains why I went upstairs and grabbed her a recent issue of TIME Magazine that profiled that candidate. And it may even explain why I didn't begin hyperventilating when the conversation swung around to her feelings about Chaz Bono's presence on "Dancing With the Stars." (Hint: She doesn't like it.)

After she left, I began wondering about the nature of relationships as we age, and whether we tend to become more or less tolerant of people, even close friends and family members, whose views differ from ours. On one hand, I'm more resolute in my opinions than I've ever been. But on the other hand, I'm probably a little more inclined to acknowledge that everyone doesn't have to believe the way I do (although, of course, I'd like them to).

Some of my memories of my dad's last few years may bear me out on this hypothesis. I'm thinking specifically of the day Iowa legalized gay marriage. I visited Dad and felt inclined, against my better judgment, to ask him, "So, what do you think about what happened today?"

I half expected a response somewhere to the far right of the most closed-minded Archie Bunker statement, but to my delight, my then-89-year-old father responded: "Here's how I feel about gay people. If they don't bother Charlie Lavia, Charlie Lavia won't bother them."

I laughed, of course, at the notion of random gay people somehow "bothering" Charlie Lavia. But then I thought: Age has mellowed him. There's no other explanation.

As for me, I'm not so sure what's going on. There was a time in my life I tended not to want to rock the boat when it came to politics: My first husband's views were and are in direct opposition to mine, and during the '92 presidential campaign, I allowed the wife of my then-husband's candidate to hold our then-baby for a photo op. I may have even taken pictures. I was more or less willing to try to see the good in everyone who was willing to run for public office, and I didn't pay much attention to the internal voice telling me, "You really, really don't agree with that person."

Twenty years later, I don't think twice about arguing with anyone and everyone about my rather strong convictions. What changed? On the inside, nothing. I think the only reasonable explanation is that I simply care far less about whether people like me. And I think that lack of concern comes (happily) with age.

It makes sense: Now that I'm more secure about my opinions, it's easier to share them. I can sit across the table from Diane, my soup-making friend, and feel fairly sure that our relationship runs deeper than the outcome of the next election. Do I think she's wrong? Heck, yes. Will I keep trying to change her opinions? Of course. But I'll also respect the fact that she has a generous, loving heart.

After all, if I judge, I'm behaving like the groups of people with whom I so vehemently disagree. Being open-minded means more than affirming the opinions of those who think the way I do.

I believe people are intrinsically good, even the ones whose politics don't mirror mine. I believe most of us operate from a deep moral sense of what we believe to be right and just, and that even when I think people are a little "off" -- or even dead wrong -- it's my duty as a human to try to understand where they're coming from.

Diane doesn't disagree with me because she's argumentative or obstinate. She disagrees because she was raised a certain way, is married to someone who believes a certain way, and is influenced by the way she interprets her church's teachings. Similarly, I disagree with her because of the experiences and events that have shaped me. We get that about one another, and the conversations -- even when reaffirming that we're on opposite sides of the fence -- always are good-natured and respectful.

I'm really pretty positive that as I get older, my politics won't change. But I'm also pretty sure that I don't want to be the kind of bitter old lady who is so intolerant of others' beliefs that she turns away the chance at real relationships.

So even if I think you're 101 percent misguided and shouldn't be allowed near a voting booth, you have my word that if you're not harming anyone, I'll respect your right to a conflicting opinion.

And I'll respect you even more, it goes without saying, if there's homemade soup involved.

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