12/16/2013 12:48 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2014

Celebrate Diversity and Practice Tolerance This Holiday Season

Have you ever considered what a gift it is to live in a country where you can freely interact with people of different races, religions, genders, nationalities, opinions and lifestyles? America is as much of a melting pot as it is a nation of people with unique differences -- most of which are tolerated and accepted by law. But that doesn't always translate into reality.

Many people prefer to be around other people who think, act and look exactly like themselves, even though they may be tolerant of those outside their comfort zone. Others take it a step further and condemn those that are not like themselves. That's called prejudice, which often leads to unjustified emotional or physical injury to another human being. On a larger scale, it leads to war.

The spirit of the holidays has always been symbolized by peace, however, peace doesn't begin with a nation. It begins within the heart of each and every person. Your heart holds the keys to celebrating diversity instead of criticizing it and to practicing tolerance instead of hate. But, you must be willing. And why wouldn't you be? Think of how you would feel if you were discriminated against or attacked because of the color of your skin; the God you worshiped (or not); the politician you voted for (or not); the food you ate; the holidays you celebrate; the person or you loved (same sex or not). How would you feel if the right to practice any of these openly, freely and lawfully (without any negative repercussions) was taken away?

The holiday season is a good time to search deep within your heart and start a lifelong practice of compassion and acceptance for all human beings.

Five ways to celebrate diversity and practice tolerance:

• Take the time to learn about different cultures through books, documentaries, magazines, travel, foreign language classes or cooking classes.
• When you encounter people with different beliefs than yours, honor their right to believe in what they want just as you would want them to honor yours.
• Teach your children as early as possible to accept all people as being equal -- period.
• Don't base your opinion of an entire nation of people by one bad act or person reported about from the media.
• Resist forcing your opinions and beliefs upon others who have rightfully chosen their own.