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Elizabeth Lesser: Take

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This room may appear to be holding 600 people, but there's actually so many more, because in each one of us there is a multitude of personalities. I have two primary personalities that have been in conflict and conversation within me since I was a little girl. I call them "the mystic" and "the warrior." I was born into a family of politically active, intellectual atheists. There was this equation in my family that went something like this: if you are intelligent, you therefore are not spiritual. I was the freak of the family. I was this weird little kid who wanted to have deep talks about the worlds that might exist beyond the ones that we perceive with our senses. I wanted to know if what we human beings see and hear and think is a full and accurate picture of reality. So, looking for answers, I went to Catholic mass. I tagged along with my neighbors. I read Sartre and Socrates. And then a wonderful thing happened when I was in high school: Gurus from the East started washing up on the shores of America. And I said to myself, "I wanna get me one of them."

And ever since, I've been walking the mystic path, trying to peer beyond what Albert Einstein called "the optical delusion of everyday consciousness." So what did he mean by this? I'll show you. Take a breath right now of this clear air in this room. Now, see this strange, underwater, coral reef-looking thing? It's actually a person's trachea, and those colored globs are microbes that are actually swimming around in this room right now, all around us. If we're blind to this simple biology, imagine what we're missing at the smallest subatomic level right now and at the grandest cosmic levels. My years as a mystic have made me question almost all my assumptions. They've made me a proud I-don't-know-it-all.

Now when the mystic part of me jabbers on and on like this, the warrior rolls her eyes. She's concerned about what's happening in this world right now. She's worried. She says, "Excuse me, I'm pissed off, and I know a few things, and we better get busy about them right now." I've spent my life as a warrior, working for women's issues, working on political campaigns, being an activist for the environment. And it can be sort of crazy-making, housing both the mystic and the warrior in one body. I've always been attracted to those rare people who pull that off, who devote their lives to humanity with the grit of the warrior and the grace of the mystic -- people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote, "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This," he wrote, "is the interrelated structure of reality." Then Mother Teresa, another mystic warrior, who said, "The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small." And Nelson Mandela, who lives by the African concept of "ubuntu," which means "I need you in order to be me, and you need me in order to be you." Now we all love to trot out these three mystic warriors as if they were born with the saint gene. But we all actually have the same capacity that they do, and we need to do their work now.

I'm deeply disturbed by the ways in which all of our cultures are demonizing "the Other" by the voice we're giving to the most divisive among us. Listen to these titles of some of the bestselling books from both sides of the political divide here in the U.S. "Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder," "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," "Pinheads and Patriots," "Arguing With Idiots." They're supposedly tongue-in-cheek, but they're actually dangerous. Now here's a title that may sound familiar, but whose author may surprise you: "Four-and-a-Half-Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice." Who wrote that? That was Adolf Hitler's first title for "Mein Kampf" -- "My Struggle" -- the book that launched the Nazi party. The worst eras in human history, whether in Cambodia or Germany or Rwanda, they start like this, with negative other-izing. And then they morph into violent extremism.

This is why I'm launching a new initiative. And it's to help all of us, myself included, to counteract the tendency to "otherize." And I realize we're all busy people, so don't worry, you can do this on a lunch break. I'm calling my initiative, "Take the Other to Lunch." If you are a Republican, you can take a Democrat to lunch, or if you're a Democrat, think of it as taking a Republican to lunch. Now if the idea of taking any of these people to lunch makes you lose your appetite, I suggest you start more local, because there is no shortage of the Other right in your own neighborhood. Maybe that person who worships at the mosque, or the church or the synagogue, down the street. Or someone from the other side of the abortion conflict. Or maybe your brother-in-law who doesn't believe in global warming. Anyone whose lifestyle may frighten you, or whose point of view makes smoke come out of your ears.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a Conservative Tea Party woman to lunch. Now on paper, she passed my smoking ears test. She's an activist from the Right, and I'm an activist from the Left. And we used some guidelines to keep our conversation elevated, and you can use them too, because I know you're all going to take an Other to lunch. So first of all, decide on a goal: to get to know one person from a group you may have negatively stereotyped. And then, before you get together, agree on some ground rules. My Tea Party lunchmate and I came up with these: don't persuade, defend or interrupt. Be curious; be conversational; be real. And listen.

From there, we dove in. And we used these questions: Share some of your life experiences with me. What issues deeply concern you? And what have you always wanted to ask someone from the other side? My lunch partner and I came away with some really important insights, and I'm going to share just one with you. I think it has relevance to any problem between people anywhere. I asked her why her side makes such outrageous allegations and lies about my side. "What?" she wanted to know. "Like we're a bunch of elitist, morally-corrupt terrorist-lovers." Well, she was shocked. She thought my side beat up on her side way more often, that we called them brainless, gun-toting racists, and we both marveled at the labels that fit none of the people we actually know. And since we had established some trust, we believed in each other's sincerity.

We agreed we'd speak up in our own communities when we witnessed the kind of "otherizing" talk that can wound and fester into paranoia and then be used by those on the fringes to incite. By the end of our lunch, we acknowledged each other's openness. Neither of us had tried to change the other. But we also hadn't pretended that our differences were just going to melt away after a lunch. Instead, we had taken first steps together, past our knee-jerk reactions, to the ubuntu place, which is the only place where solutions to our most intractable-seeming problems will be found.

Who should you invite to lunch? Next time you catch yourself in the act of otherizing, that will be your clue. And what might happen at your lunch? Will the heavens open and "We Are the World" play over the restaurant sound system? Probably not. Because ubuntu work is slow, and it's difficult. It's two people dropping the pretense of being know-it-alls. It's two people, two warriors, dropping their weapons and reaching toward each other. Here's how the great Persian poet Rumi put it: "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."


Video Details

Duration: 10 minutes and 48 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 405
Posted by: tedtalks on Jan 13, 2011

There's an angry divisive tension in the air that threatens to make modern politics impossible. Elizabeth Lesser explores the two sides of human nature that create this tension (call them "the mystic" and "the warrior") and shares a simple, personal way to begin a real dialogue -- by going to lunch with someone who doesn't agree with you, and asking them three questions to find out what's really in their hearts.

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