Tolerance refers to the readiness to live with unpalatable situations or unpleasant people. It is a strength that enables us to shift our focus from less important things to more important things. However, if tolerance is misunderstood or misapplied as passivity, it becomes a weakness.
For example, suppose someone abuses us – and abuses us repeatedly and unrepentantly. If we don’t do anything corrective, we end up hurting both them and us. We unwittingly become codependents who facilitate and perpetuate and aggravate their misbehavior, for which they will have to suffer severe karmic reactions. And we worsen our suffering because we let abusers, keep treating us like doormats, to be used and trampled and discarded.
When we pursue a higher purpose, tolerance empowers us to endure incidental inconveniences without getting distracted. But if those inconveniences block us from pursuing our purpose itself, then we can’t be passive – we need to be assertive.
This purposefulness that underlies tolerance is seen in the Bhagavad-gita (02.14), which follows up its call for tolerating life’s inevitable ups and downs (02.14) with a declaration of the resulting achievement: realization of our transcendental nature as immortal beings. Thus, tolerance is a means to transcendence.
The Gita’s setting underscores that transcendence, not tolerance, is life’s ultimate end by recommending fighting, which is the opposite of tolerating, when fighting is necessary for promoting transcendence. Why was fighting necessary? Because vicious, anti-social forces had unscrupulously grabbed power, thereby blocking people’s path to transcendence. So, Arjuna as a martial guardian of society, had to confront the usurpers who had scoffed at all efforts for peaceful resolution.
In our daily life, we too need to fight, not necessarily against enemies, but frequently against inimical situations. When we see tolerance as a tool to transcendence, we can both choose our battles intelligently and fight our chosen battles wholeheartedly.