Should We Take "The Other" To Lunch?

Dec 16, 2016

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reconciliation

About Elizabeth Lesser's TED Talk

Elizabeth Lesser shares a simple way to begin meaningful dialogue: find someone from a totally different background — and spend a few hours with them over lunch.

About Elizabeth Lesser

Elizabeth Lesser is an author and the co-founder of the Omega Institute, the conference and retreat center located in Rhinebeck, New York. She has spent decades helping individuals heal internally, and showing how we can mend society as well.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Today on the show, ideas about conflict and reconciliation and coming together when it seems more difficult than ever. And, of course, when the future seems so uncertain, it's normal to want to look to the past for lessons to people like Gandhi or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela. You know, how would they have reacted to what's happening in the world today?

ELIZABETH LESSER: Everyone loves to lionize, let's say, Dr. King.

RAZ: Yeah.

LESSER: And we know the words to his speeches, and it all sounds so wonderful. But ask to really put it into practice with your kid, your mate, the jerk boss. Suddenly, all that idealism we love to talk about goes out the window, and we don't do it.

RAZ: Yeah.

LESSER: And I am interested in how we do it in the smallest ways every day.

RAZ: This is Elizabeth Lesser. She's a co-founder of the Omega Institute.

LESSER: One of the largest teaching centers in the world for all sorts of subjects from healing yourself to healing society.

RAZ: And that kind of healing, Elizabeth says, it doesn't start with big, sweeping movements like the kind led by Martin Luther King. It starts with people, with individuals choosing to change the way they think about conflict.

LESSER: It's rare that you have a conflict and two people or two groups who are equally mature in their desire or capacity to get there. That doesn't mean it can't happen. What it means is that one person has to take the lead, has to be bigger. I call that kind of person the new first responder. The person who takes the first step in a conflict toward the other, those are brave people. Here's a name it would be great if everyone knew. Her name is Antoinette Tuff. Have you ever heard of her name, Antoinette Tuff?

RAZ: No.

LESSER: We should. We should know her name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Unintelligible) address of your emergency?

ANTOINETTE TUFF: Yes, ma'am. I'm second avenue and the school. And the gentleman said tell them to hold down the police officers from coming. And he said he going to start shooting. So tell them to back off.

LESSER: She was the receptionist at an elementary school a few years ago. A young man burst into the school with a machine gun and lots of loads of ammunition, held hundreds of kids captive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUFF: He said he don't care if he die. He don't have nothing to live for. And he says he's not mentally stable.

LESSER: She went into the room, and she started talking to the young man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUFF: It's going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you though, OK? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you've given up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life.

LESSER: She started talking about her divorce and her disabled child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUFF: You know I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me? But look at me now. I'm still working and everything is OK.

LESSER: She finally talked him down. He finally gave himself in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Do not move. Get on the ground.

RAZ: Antoinette Tuff that day on the phone with 911...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUFF: I'm going to tell you something, baby, I ain't got this (unintelligible) days of my life. degree.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: But you did great.

RAZ: She somehow found a way to see parts of herself in that gunman and not to demonize him, but to connect in spite of the conflict that was playing out. And, obviously, it took incredible courage to do that. But Elizabeth Lesser says it's a capacity we all have. Here she is on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSER: I'm deeply disturbed by the ways in which all of our cultures are demonizing the other. 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 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.

(LAUGHTER)

LESSER: Anyone whose lifestyle may frighten you or whose point of view makes smoke come out of your ears.

RAZ: So you are a person of the left, right? Fair to say?

LESSER: Fair to say.

RAZ: Fair to say. OK. And you gave this talk back in 2010, we should say. And you started to reach out to people on the right and say, hey, like, you know, let's have lunch?

LESSER: Yes.

RAZ: And how'd it go?

LESSER: In some cases, really well, to the point where I'm still in touch with these people. And in some cases OK.

RAZ: Just, like, weird, uncomfortable conversations?

LESSER: I made sure we got at least to comfortable. And it was kind of sobering to know that we were never going to see eye to eye. But I would have to say in all the cases - and, of course, this is a self-selected group of people who would even say yes to it - in all of the cases, there was a sense of gratitude. Thank you for doing this. No one from your side has ever done this.

RAZ: So it's not about changing someone's mind, and it's not about having your mind changed? It's just about making a connection?

LESSER: We'll never change everyone's minds. We're not supposed to. Diversity is good. We need each other's ideas. Now, I'm not talking about racist ideas or misogynistic ideas or cruel or criminal ideas. I'm talking about most of us who have very varied experiences, needs and ideas. It's really about believing that it's an important part of healing our country.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSER: A couple of weeks ago, I took a conservative Tea Party woman to lunch. 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 (ph) talk that can wound and fester into paranoia and then be used by those on the fringes to incite.

RAZ: So when you gave this talk in 2010 about this initiative, I mean, you said, I'm going to launch this initiative. It's going to be called Take the Other to Lunch. We're going to go out there. (Unintelligible) Super idealistic. It's - I mean, now things are obviously much, much more divided than they were then. And I wonder whether your talk almost strikes you as kind of naive, you know? Or do you hear it and think, no, you know, those principles still apply?

LESSER: More than ever. And I actually don't think we're more divided than we were. I think it's more evident. It's more evident because of the internet. It's more evident because feelings have been whipped up by a very divisive election. And I think it's good that it's out in the open. I think it's better that people actually are saying what they feel. Especially, people are saying, I'm not heard. I don't have a voice in this country.

That's a place where we can meet because I know people react often to this idea of Take the Other to Lunch as if it's some Pollyanna strategy and I'm naive. I'm not naive. I know how hard it is to get along. But I also know that if we allow ourselves into the gridlock of tribalism, we're in trouble. Talking to each other instead of talking about each other is not some kind of nicey-nice (ph) idea. It's the difference between societies falling apart and societies getting something wonderful done.

RAZ: Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of the Omega Institute. She has two incredible talks. You can see them at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEET ME IN THE MIDDLE")

THE SHRINKS: (Singing) Meet me in the middle, come halfway. Meet me in the middle, what do you say? Meet me in the middle. Meet me in the middle.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on reconciliation this week. Our production staff at NPR include Jeff Rogers, Brent Bachman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Casey Herman with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Camilo Garzon. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel, Janet Lee and Anna Phelan. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.