Monday March 4, 2013
Intolerant of intolerance
BUT THEN AGAIN
By MARY SCHNEIDER
AT a very young age, I learnt what it meant to not tolerate something. If one of my five siblings or I ever misbehaved, my mother would often fix us with a steely stare, put her hands on her hips and say, “I will not tolerate this sort of behaviour.”
I can still remember the first time one of her “I will not tolerate” statements was directed specifically at me, when I was 10 years old. I was having breakfast at the time and had just discovered that my fried egg contained a transparent, slimy glob of egg white, which made it look as if someone with a very bad cold had sneezed into the frying pan during cooking. My stomach churned and I stopped eating.
As I got up to leave the table, my mother asked about my unfinished egg.
“I don’t like it,” I said. “It’s got a snotty bit inside.”
“Do you know there are people starving in Biafra (a former Nigerian secessionist state) who would be glad of that egg? I will not tolerate food wastage in this house.”
I know that makes her sound harsh, but my mother grew up during World War II and had experienced food rationing and making do without. As a result, she regarded food wastage as the eighth cardinal sin.
I reasoned with her. “But I will be sick if I have to eat it,” I said.
She leaned over and, with a deft flick of a knife, removed the offending piece of egg white.
“Now you can eat it,” she said, encouragingly.
“But I can’t stop thinking about that glob,” I reasoned further.
“I’m sorry but you’re just going to have to sit at the table until it’s eaten.”
I sat at that table for four hours, staring at that mutilated egg atop a cold, greasy plate. I selfishly prayed for some starving Biafran children to come charging into my house, demanding sustenance. But none came.
When lunchtime rolled around, my mother indicated that I could leave the table.
That incident marked the beginning of my love-hate relationship with eggs. Although I’ll have an egg about once a week now, there are times when just the thought of one makes me feel queasy, and I will happily abandon them for weeks on end. It’s just a shame that I didn’t have the same sort of autonomy as a child.
I grew up on a Scottish farm, which meant that eggs, milk and potatoes were part of my daily diet.
Indeed, towards the end of any given week, when my father’s meagre wages from his job as a farm labourer had usually run out, this trio of staples was just about all we had to eat. On Thursdays and Fridays, it was not uncommon for me to have eggs for breakfast, egg sandwiches for lunch, and egg and potatoes for dinner.
Two days after my punishment, when I knew that eggs were on the dinner menu again, I asked my mother if I could have just potatoes. She agreed. But the following morning, a fried egg greeted me at the breakfast table. My stomach flip-flopped. It was still too early to start eating eggs again.
“I’m not hungry,” I announced.
Since it was a school day, I knew I wasn’t going to be asked to sit at the table for four hours if I refused to eat, but I wasn’t expecting the response I got.
My mother pursed her lips, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she removed the plate from the table and began urging my younger siblings to hurry along.
For the first time, I understood what it meant to tolerate someone. My mother had not changed her thoughts on food wastage, but she obviously knew that trying to force me to eat an egg was not a good strategy.
After that, whenever my egg aversion made an appearance, my mother wouldn’t make a fuss about it. But she did find it difficult to hide the almost imperceptible tightening of her mouth.
These days, when I hear people in public positions calling for us to be more tolerant with regard to our racial, religious, political and lifestyle differences, I become very tense. Tolerance is, after all, a word with negative connotations.
Are they urging us to strive to understand each other and our diverse beliefs and opinions, so that we can ultimately empathise with and respect each other?
Or, as their public behaviour sometimes indicates, are they telling us that despite our dislike and/or lack of understanding of what others do and think, we must outwardly behave as if we are altogether okay with them? Basically, just put up with them?
How can we possibly tolerate the latter?