Two Sides of Tolerance: Accepting Others


Not long ago, I enjoyed tea and pastry at my favorite bakery. A woman with dizzying perfume swept into a seat behind me. Her sharp, expensive fragrance slid over my table, invading each sip and bite I took.  Irritation engulfed me. I snatched up my notebooks and stomped across the room to pen a few ill-tempered paragraphs. When my tea tasted good again, I stole a glance at the perpetrator. Slim and sixtyish, she stiffened under my scrutiny.

I expected someone offensive and unlikable–a diabolical, slathering fiend, perfume bottle in hand, ready to shoot pungent fluids at my face.  Instead, a frail and self-conscious senior citizen nibbled a croissant.  Her red-and-black plaid pantsuit radiated as fiercely as her fragrance. She was the kind of woman who applies lipstick with a tiny brush and styles her improbable chestnut hair with precision. In a deserted bakery, she purposely chose the seat closest to twitchy, tappy me.

As an autistic woman, I cursed both my sensory sensitivity and social reticence.  I wanted to explain my huff, but I had neither the words nor the poise. Perhaps the perfume she wore was her stim, her comfort, her way of making the outside world tolerable. Sitting close to me was an act of camaraderie, not hostility.

No matter how righteous my beliefs, I should not scorn the woman across the bakery.

After all, how many recoiled from me in hallways and lunchrooms because they found my excitability unnerving?

It is easy, instinctive even, to divide the world into smaller and smaller pieces to protect yourself. Cutting away people who smell too strongly, talk too loudly, or twitch too often can evolve into intolerance on a grander scale. Assail ideas, not individuals.

I timed my departure to match the flower woman’s, so I could hold the door open for her. Conciliatory words jammed my throat, but my eyes leapt to hers. I gave her my warmest, kindest smile. She held my gaze and smiled, “Thank you.”