Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Opposite of Love Sometimes Doesn't Seem So Different

It can be hard to tell tolerance and indifference apart.

* Jim adores Julie so much that even when she flies off the handle it doesn’t bother him in the least.  He rides it out quietly. In his devotion, he can take all that she dishes out—and when she recovers, she thanks Jim for his extraordinary generosity.

* Bob doesn’t care about Sara at all, so even when she flies off the handle, it’s no skin off his nose. He humors her unflinchingly, aware that, practically speaking, nothing she says or does matters to him—and when she recovers, she thanks him for his extraordinary generosity.


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Two routes to accommodation: One through love, the other through indifference. It’s the difference between, “Darling, I’m OK with whatever you want to do,” and a flat, “Whatever,” perhaps dressed up as politeness.

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It’s easy to be polite to those we don’t feel we need, because our well-being doesn’t depend on their regard. Their disapproval doesn’t compel us to resistance, resentment, or self-protection. We’ve already lowered our expectations to accurately reflect what they deliver.  

People say I’ve gotten nicer over the years. If so, it’s probably because I’ve become more efficiently detached. I’m better at checking with myself before reacting to people I find annoying—asking myself “is this skin off my nose?” and if it isn’t, just saying something humoring and moving on. 

Our ambivalence about such psychic distancing is reflected in our words for it: When we think it’s bad we call it being uncaring, lowering our standards, being distant, inattentive, indifferent or humoring people. When we think it’s good we call it being tolerant, unattached, relaxing our expectations of others, being compassionate, independent, keeping our own counsel, or having a live and let live attitude. 

Who you can afford to tolerate is more of a practical question than a spiritual one. You can’t ignore someone who has the power to ruin your reputation, but you may overestimate how many people could.

I find it easy to ignore abrasive experiences with people over whom I hold the axe. Paradoxically, the more I feel I have the power to boot someone out of my life if they get to bothersome, the less I need to exercise that power. I roll with those I can roll away easily. I’m less annoyed by the flies I know I can swat. That’s one use of power: The more you have, the less you flinch when people bug you.

But the less power you have, the more you depend upon the people around you, and the more you’ll feel the urge toward vigilant reputation management, monitoring those people's comments closely for evidence of respect. You’ll care what they think, because it matters to you, or because you think it does. 

We can minimize over-reaction through faster detachment reflexes, catching ourselves before we react and asking ourselves, "Does this conflict really matter?” More often than you’d probably think, the answer turns out to be “No.”

With age, we tend to pick our battles more frugally, maintaining greater peace of mind by not caring as much about the outcome of every little flap. 

We’re often told to love our neighbors, but greater tolerance is often best achieved by cultivating indifference to them.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.


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