Learn tolerance from life of MLK

Somehow, we have not yet evolved to the point where ideas are seen as valuable possessions.
Monday, January 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

It’s hard to dwell on life’s more serious aspects with your cat at your feet, spread out on his back, sound asleep with all four of his paws pointed skyward. It does remind you, however, about the necessity of keeping things in their proper perspective. Simply put, the earth will not stop turning because you forgot to put out the garbage, and the sky will not fall because you forgot your aunt’s 90th birthday. But dire consequences could result if you don’t remember to check the oil in your car.

Keeping things in perspective is important, and even when you have a cooperative cat, it’s not always easy to achieve. And to be honest, I’m sometimes not even in the mood to try. That’s one purpose the observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday serves in my life. When I’m reminded of the example this man set before us in his brief lifetime, it’s embarrassing to examine some of my attitudes and behaviors in the areas of generating peace and understanding.

Probably, if I could acquire more patience, I’d be a lot more tolerant. Among our privileges as American citizens is that we have a right to a free public education. In addition to that, we have free public libraries. Most of our homes have televisions, and many of them are equipped with computers. Yet, functional illiteracy is one of our biggest social problems. I am impatient with the fact that with all of these resources at our disposal, we seem to be unable to find a way to make education a priority in people’s lives. Everyday, some event occurs to underscore the reality of how easy it is for ignorant people to lose their freedoms. And so I become more and more intolerant of men and women who aspire to leadership positions who appear to be indifferent to literacy problems and the threats they pose to our democracy. I’m sure Dr. King would be more generous in his thoughts than I am in this regard and could persuade the powers-that-be of the seriousness of this situation.

Obviously, if I were more loving, I could be a lot more tolerant. I really and truly want to believe that the majority of parents love their children. That’s what I read in magazines and hear on television and the radio. However, that just doesn’t jibe with what I see. Some folks are more attentive to their pets than others are to their children. What do parents visualize as the results of allowing their children to make their own decisions, of letting them roam unsupervised at all hours in all kinds of environments, of abandoning them for three or four days without a chaperon? Do they really believe that these children will mature into responsible adults and lead meaningful, productive lives? Perhaps Dr. King could have gotten their attention. Murder, mayhem and broken futures seem to make no impression, whatsoever.

For the record, I’m willing to admit I could be a lot more understanding and compassionate if people who believe that education and disciplining children has played no role historically in shaping human history could prove it. I want them to show me when and where in recorded history an ignorant populace and undisciplined children contributed to the progress of civilization. I know the fact that I tend to take social trends seriously separates me from popular culture and prevents me from assuming a casual attitude toward what some people seem to think are temporary fads. But frankly, I don’t think our global position allows us the freedom to take voyages into the fantastic. The bloodshed in Iraq is real, and the catastrophic damage to families is horrific. Now is the time to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses and begin to build up our resources.

I am aware that many Americans feel they should serve as the world’s police force. And certainly, popular opinion seems to support that position. They view peace and understanding as a pacifist position. Religion and ethics in our society take a back seat, and there are many people for whom these subjects were not part of their education. War tends to be glorified, and people like Dr. King, while respected and revered, are generally not viewed as heroes as are those who fought in wars and were decorated for their valor. Somehow, we have not yet evolved to the point where ideas are seen as valuable possessions. A dream that envisions Palestinian children and Israeli children walking together hand-in-hand hardly seems as important to some folks as the number of territories gained or lost.

I suspect that one of the reasons Dr. King had such a great influence on American lives is that people understood the importance of holding dialogues and sharing ideas. I don’t think people do much of that anymore. Television has taught us to sit back and listen, and when we disagree, we just change the channel.

Maybe when we turn the set off and walk across the street and converse with our neighbor, we will be taking a few steps toward peace and understanding. I think somewhere in that scenario lies a recipe for tolerance.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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