The Intolerance of Tolerance

by Donald Wilson on February 6, 2011

Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Walnuts and Walnut Oil

As I drove Andrew to soccer practice tonight, he mumbled out loud as he noncommittedly read off billboards that we passed: Ralph’s, Food For Less, etc.  Soon he followed with Museum of Tolerance as we passed by it and suddenly he was engaged.

“Dad, what does tolerance mean?” he asked earnestly.

I was a bit taken aback, since I knew he had been to the museum and I really thought it was something he should know.

“Well, I guess it means that you are willing to…” Suddenly, I was at a loss.  I tried again.

“I suppose it means that one is… tolerant or,” this was harder than I had imagined.  “Hmm, it means that one is open or willing to accept something they don’t understand.”  I concluded.

“Like gays,” He stated.

“Yes, and like African Americans, Latinos, or Jews,” I added.

“Jews? African Americans?  Why?” he asked incredulously.

I started to answer a bit sarcastically thinking it was so obvious, “Well, African Americans have experienced all sorts of prejudice and don’t forget slavery.  Then, of course, there’s Hitler with the Jews and…” I got cut off.

“Oh yeah, I see what you mean,” he said, but added, “then, I don’t think I’m tolerant.”

“Of course you are.  You’re very tolerant,” I insisted.

“No, I don’t think so.  You see, dad, it seems to me that every time you say you’re tolerant it’s always connected to something you don’t like or about someone who has something you think is weird.  I don’t feel that way at all about anybody.  I like African Americans.  I like Jews.   I like gays.  Of course, I like Latinos.  So, you see, I’m not tolerant of them.  I don’t need to be.  I just really like them for who they are as people.”

His sincerity was compelling and he continued, “Think about it dad.  If you say that you are tolerant of African Americans, then it means you think there’s something about them that needs tolerating.  If you say you tolerate gays, you are really saying that they are different from you in a weird way that makes you have to find some niceness in your heart to accept them.”

He stopped talking for a moment, sat in thought, and then concluded, “Really dad, it’s bad to have to tolerate something.  Think about it.  I tolerate hot weather.  Hot weather bothers me, but I endure it.  I tolerate your singing in the car, but only to get along, not because I like it.  Oh, and because I need you to take me places.” He ended that thought with a chuckle.

I was dumbstruck.  He was making sense.  I just looked at him and felt a tug at my heart as he continued.

“Really Dad, if you say you are tolerant of something, then you really are just prejudice.  It’s almost like you can’t be tolerant without first finding something that you are intolerant of.  I don’t want to be tolerant.  I just want to like people as they are.”

We had arrived at practice and as he jumped out of the car, he laughed and said, “ I think they should have an Intolerance of Tolerance Museum.”  And off he went.

As I drove home, I thought a lot about what Andrew had said.  It had an impact on me that I hadn’t expected and I found myself getting choked up by his candor and innocence.  I had been on the verge of tears twice already today.  As a principal, I am often privy to the pain and suffering that goes on in the lives of my students and their families.    Today brought two heart breaking cases. One was a case of a very broken family that had left the child virtually motherless.  The other was the brokenness of the soul that comes when a tender heart is bullied to the breaking point.  Their stories and their broken state had broken my heart and I was still tender.

This last conversation with Andrew was just too much.  I knew that I needed to recapture this conversation and I grabbed the dog and took off on a walk to gather my thoughts.  As I played the conversation over in my head the whole day came flooding through and I just had to let it out.  As I walked, I cried for the boys I had sat with earlier.  I cried for the injustices they and so many kids face.  I cried because these boys face a world that is so cruelly intolerant and often so insidiously tolerant.

But mostly, I cried for my son’s sincerity and innocence.  I had the startling realization that in the five years we have been together I couldn’t remember one time that he has ever said anything bad about any person because of whom or how they were.  I remembered once feeling the same.

Tonight Andrew’s discussion hit me like an epiphany out of a Flannery O’Connor novel:  My life is full of too much tolerance and not enough love.

I want to live in Andrew’s world, where love reigns and tolerance doesn’t need to exist.


Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Walnuts and Walnut Oil

This recipe is a perfect example of Andrew’s lesson on tolerance.  For years, I only tolerated Brussels sprouts.  I would endure them well enough at a dinner party and occasionally would even try them out at home.  (You see, many of my best friends are Brussels sprouts.)  It wasn’t until I was at a wonderful Los Angeles restaurant, A.O.C., where I thought I would be forced to tolerate them because of the meant-to-be- shared small plates.  I don’t know what they did, but one taste of their sprouts and I was converted.  Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of them.  In fact, I don’t tolerate them anymore, I love them.

I developed this recipe after a trip to the farmers’ market where I was turned on to fresh walnut oil.  You should not be without this staple in your fridge.  This is Andrew’s favorite vegetable dish.  Mine too.

Serves 4 to 6 normal people, but two if one is Andrew.

1 pound Brussels sprouts, cut in halves

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 to 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

½ cup walnut halves or pieces

½ to 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

2 or 3 tablespoons walnut oil

A few good grindings of pepper, about ½ teaspoon

Sea salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the sprouts in one layer over medium-high heat.  Try to place most of the sprouts cut side down (but don’t drive your self crazy trying to) and sear them until they start to brown.  Use a spatula to flip them to the other side and sauté a few minutes longer to brown a bit.  You may need a bit more oil; drizzle as needed. Add the garlic, pepper, and just a pinch of salt and sauté for a minute or two, but don’t let the garlic brown.  Add the stock and bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium and cook until the stock is not quite absorbed.  It will be almost syrupy.

While the sprouts cook, toast the walnuts in a 400-degree oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, checking regularly to ensure they don’t burn, or alternatively toast them in a pan over a medium flame. When done, roughly chop them up.

You will have to judge when the sprouts are done for yourself.  If you like them firm, stop them earlier.  We like them a bit soft and juicy.  Regardless, take them off the heat, drizzle the walnut oil over them, and stir in the toasted walnuts.   Season with more sea salt and pepper to taste.



Carolyn February 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Very profound. Love instead of tolerance really gives you something to think about(and work towards). However, tolerance for brussel sprouts is another story. Your recipe could change my mind on brussel sprouts – only because they are covered in a sauce. Your son is a good kid.

Nancy Bardugon February 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm

After having this dish, I no longer tolerate brussel sprouts, I love them! I love this post–it definitely makes you think. Thank you Andrew!

Cammy Fuller February 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I already love brussels sprouts! I’ve only met Andrew through your family and your blog, and I love him, too!

Jen February 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Wow, tears in my eyes too. Andrew is so right. I only tolerate things that annoy and disturb me. The rest, well, that is love. Your writing is crisp and your recipes and photos divine. And….we are going to AOC tomorrow with the Raimondis so I will def order the brussels sprouts!

Joanna February 10, 2011 at 7:50 pm

A very astute young man you have there. While we can chalk it up to “innocence” he is, in fact, exactly right. The word tolerance really does send the wrong message. We shouldn’t tolerate people (unless they’re family…you don’t get to choose them :-)), we should accept all people for who they are and what they add to the world. I had a professor of African American studies in college who implored us not to be tolerant but to just accept as, as Andrew pointed out, tolerance implies something is wrong (or perceived as wrong) with the person who we “tolerate.” Tell Grasshopper he is learning well!

Joanna February 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm

OH, and brussels sprouts rock!!!

Joyce February 12, 2011 at 3:50 am

I love you, Don. Really, I do. I think you are amazing and inspiring and I’m so honored to know you. xo Joyce

Shakeh February 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I, too, cried! It was tears of Joy. I met Andrew, a precious and brilliant seven year old boy, when his mother was in the hospital dying and he, as Don described it, was “dying on the vine”. It is amazing how Don’s unconditional love, compassion and “tolerance” has changed Andrew’s life. It has been equally amazing to watch how Andrew’s love, respect, and admiration has changed Don’s life. And although they did not come from the same vine, you would be hard pressed to find a better pairing such as brussel spout and pancetta or flapjacks and maple syrup. Don’s and Andrew’s story is a testimony to the power of love and children’s resiliency.
I love you both very much!

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