Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace by Carolyn Berry
Zero tolerance. A new American buzz word that marks the close of the 1900s. A politically-appropriate reframing of the black-and-white thinking that has contributed to all conflicts marking humankind in the millennium now passing away.
In Seattle, law enforcement adopted a “zero tolerance” policy on crowds demonstrating against the World Trade Organization. The result? Rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and police clad in riot gear. Batons. Black boots pinning heads to pavement for arrest.
Local schools adopted “zero tolerance” drug policies during this last decade. My asthmatic daughter was threatened with suspension if her asthma inhaler was found in her locker or backpack. The result? The guarantee of increased intensity of her asthma attacks, as school personnel retrieved her inhaler from lock and key in an office that was often 10 minutes away.
Schools nationally have adopted “zero tolerance” against violence. Headlines laude the installation of metal detectors, hiring of armed guards and placement of surveillance cameras in hallways and classrooms. The result? Our children’s educational environment shadows that of the prison industry.
I had my first personal encounter with “zero tolerance” at 23. Having been raised in a far-right fundamentalist environment, I graduated from a conservative religious college and married a boy destined to be a preacher. It became clear immediately that a less-than-lovely attribute of many men raised in the religious right had become an intimate part of my life. In that particular “zero tolerance” world, men are head of home and entitled to dole out discipline at will—upon both wife and children.
The immediate result? Physical and sexual abuse. Seeking help from my elders, I heard that if I willfully chose divorce, I’d be fired from my job at the religious college and be publicly shunned at church. The only reason I could divorce was if he were found guilty of infidelity. But the burden of proof fell to me. So, you see, I know first-hand the “down” side of zero tolerance. It can be life-threatening and totally disempowering. Ultimately I did leave that 18-month marriage. It cost me both my means of financial support and all of my social supports.
The long term result? After a period of the darkest depression I’ve ever known, I emerged with a liberating option of rewriting my life … determining exactly what I believed in … recreating me. It was a gift of permission to grow into my authentic self.
I was surprised when recently I again encountered “zero tolerance.” Through the years I’ve become an environmentalist, a community activist for social justice, an individual soul who wishes to consume less and live more consciously. As a result, I became a practicing vegetarian and gravitated toward a community of friends who held similar values.
When troubling health issues arose, a variety of doctors and tests concluded that I am allergic to soy products (tofu) and to virtually all legumes. With the primary protein sources of a vegetarian diet now identified as a personal health hazard, my doctor (himself a vegetarian) recommended I reincorporate meat—ideally chicken and fish—into my diet. The result? This conversation, repeated numerous times: I’d tell a friend how thrilled I was that the cause of my troubling health issues had been identified. Their face would grow dark as they heard my doctor’s recommendation, and they’d utter, “Horrible! You’re going to eat meat?” I would respond, “No, no. It’s really okay. Incurable cancer is horrible! Most of my problems can be solved by a simple adjustment in diet. Isn’t that great?” Shaken, they would mumble again, “You’re going to eat meat?” With a hauntingly familiar lesson repeating, I realized I must look within myself to determine what it was I failed to learn the last time.
Rilke wrote these words 100 years ago, “I’m living just as the century ends. A great leaf, that God and you and I have covered with writing turns now, overhead, in strange hands. We feel the sweep of it like a wind. We see the brightness of a new page where everything yet can happen.” My dream is that we do the work required to end our quick-fix notion of zero tolerance. That we release our clutching addiction to black-and-white thinking. I wish this for myself. I wish this for us all.
Carolyn Berry directs a community mediation agency in Salem. She is the mother of Andrew (age 15) and Kim (age 14). She is also a writer, a social/environmental activist, and a popular public speaker on such topics as simple living, authenticity, and peaceful problem solving.