Editor’s note: The following has been adapted from a commencement address given to graduating law students at Stanford University earlier this year.
I’ve been asked how to tolerate the uncertainty we face today.
We are certainly awash in uncertainty and tolerance is a tried and true academic response. But the kind of tolerance to which modern universities are a temple isn’t the kind of tolerance we really need. The tolerance that concedes another’s right to a differing opinion is kindergarten-level pluralism — a thin gruel that can’t sustain us for the challenges we face.
The real tolerance we need today is suggested by the word’s Latin root: Tolerance means the ability to “bear pain and hardship.” Think of load tolerance. In this post-pandemic world, we need this ability to bear pain.
Some people are terrific at this. They absorb enormous amounts of pain on their way to personal achievement. They metabolize pain and convert it into gold stars. They put in extra hours at the gym, the office and the library. They brag about CrossFit, sleep deprivation or eating kale (which is more painful). This is the grit that underwrites the truth: No pain, no gain. But I’m not talking about bearing this kind of pain. That’s not what the world needs today.
I’m not even talking about the truth that you will all bear real personal pain; we live in a fallen world where pain and fracture keep us from bliss or the beatific vision. You will one day all face (and need to bear and tolerate) the pain of prejudice, racial injustice, economic distress, failure, illness, isolation, the pain of being misunderstood, falsely accused or correctly accused. Your challenge will bear this personal pain and carry it without breaking. You will have to avoid this culture’s insistent invitation to shrug off that pain and drop it into dark pools of blame, alcohol, sex, greed and ambition.
But to be useful in this world, we need more than the ability to bear our own pain. We need to carry the pain of other people. There’s a reason that the word bear as in “bear pain” is etymologically and conceptually related to the idea of bearing children; pain borne for others is productive and life-sustaining — even redeeming.
Surely the quarantine has taught us that. We’ve seen people who spent their time in a “quarantine cocoon” wrapped in silent self-concern, thinking only of sourdough and “Tiger King.” And then we’ve also seen health care workers, ordinary men and women, who have left the safety of their homes and gone to hospitals to hold the pain and hold the hands of the dying. I’ve read about nurses who left home to volunteer at overloaded hospitals, to sit with the dying and hold their hands — who are willing to sit with strangers, and put themselves in their shoes and say, “They are also my family. I am the daughter to this man right now” — men and women who stay after work to hold the hands of people as they pass.
Surely we have seen this essential truth from these essential workers. Being alive means you must suffer. But being worth something, being essential, means you suffer for others — and with others.
This is what it means to be essential — to be essentially human, to lift the pain of others you are free to ignore. Our lives are defined by the pains we volunteer to bear. This is a core of the Christian message.
The (perhaps for some) unsettling truth is that for many things — even many essential things — you don’t need a law degree or even a college degree or special skills. What you need is to be willing. So direct your gaze in any direction, set out and you will see pain, racial injustice, violence, the desperation of the world’s poor, the mentally ill and the lonely. Perhaps your generation’s gift is the ability to bear others’ pain. Offer to help, listen, hold their hands, give money, pass laws, but I beg you to not settle for being comfortable or rich or important. Be essential. Be tolerant. Bear the pain of those you might be free to ignore.
Our lives are defined by the pains we volunteer to bear.
Robert Daines is an associate dean and the Pritzker Professor of Law and Business at Stanford Law School.