A few months ago I sent a “spiritual prescription” to my good friend Lisa. She and her husband were coping with loss and illness, and I was desperate to offer help. Now, she needs much more than that prescription.
The troublesome cough that showed up this winter resulted from fluid in her lung cavity caused by advanced ovarian cancer. She’s had three rounds of chemotherapy already, and surgery will be happening soon.
I’m encouraged by how well she’s tolerating things so far, but she’s worrying herself silly about the operation. Somehow she’s convinced herself there will be a lot of post-op pain, that it won’t be controlled well, that moving, walking, or just getting out of bed will be almost impossible.
I’ve had many procedures myself, and was once sent home with an unhealed wound after surviving a life-threatening abdominal infection. I knew that current modalities would serve her well with respect to pain relief, and that even though the surgery would be extensive, it would not bring her to a grinding halt. I knew that she’d tolerate it, and that it would all be better in the long run if she could focus on the concept of adjusting to the onslaught.
It strikes me that we could all use more of these two words in our daily lives. To tolerate is to “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with),” to “accept ... with forbearance” — per the Oxford English Dictionary. It derives from the Latin verb tolerare, to endure, which in itself means to “suffer something painful or difficult patiently.” The root of endure is indurare, to harden.
So we tolerate something that doesn’t suit us by hardening our resolve, which is in itself a hard thing to do! How ironic!
I don’t know about you, but the word hardness immediately brings negative images to mind. If someone is hard we think of them as inflexible, rigid, or perhaps even “harsh or unpleasant to the senses” (OED). Hard things are difficult to understand, to solve or to achieve. But if you dig deeper you can get a sense of firmness, of the ability to not be easily broken or bent.
To endure and tolerate connotes the strength and energy of hardness, the good attributes, the ones we admire and emulate. I know that the hard exterior of some folks often shelters a softness and love within, we just have to look for it. We can learn something by observing the energy that is expended on not showing weakness, on investing in the tough and “keep at it” attitude that makes success a more likely outcome. A hard fact is by definition reliable, precise, something you can trust and verify.
There are so many benefits to hardness! When we are called to tolerate and endure a new situation, perhaps we should concentrate on these aspects of the word. It’s one of the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language, we use it more than we realize. Could shifting its meaning away from the negative somehow help us see it in a new way?
And to adjust? One of its meanings is to "adapt or become used to a new situation." From the Old French verb ajoster, this word is a combination of the Latin ad- ‘to’ + juxta ‘near.’ We are trying to get closer to a new goal; something has arisen and our circumstances have changed. The separate pieces of our lives no longer function together effortlessly like a perfect machine. We have to tinker with them, perhaps get some replacement parts, we need a little bit of oil in a certain set of gears, or to clean the grit and grime from another. By adjusting, we’ll be able to keep moving.
The effort we make to adjust seems counterintuitive to the hardness implied in endurance and tolerance. But they are certainly not mutually exclusive. I like to think of them as being synergistic behaviors that can feed off each other. When I tolerate my own shortcomings or endure my own hardships, I have to call in my ability to adjust.
And so will my friend, Lisa, who's now in the fight of her life. Endurance will be her new best friend. And as the writer William Arthur Ward reminds us — The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.