TEDWomen 2010

Elizabeth Lesser: Take "the Other" to lunch

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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 within us (call them "the mystic" and "the warrior”) that can be harnessed to elevate the way we treat each other. She shares a simple way to begin 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.

- Wellness specialist
Healing expert and author Elizabeth Lesser has spent decades helping individuals heal, and showing how we can mend society as well. Full bio

This room may appear
00:15
to be holding 600 people,
00:17
but there's actually so many more,
00:19
because in each one of us
00:21
there is a multitude of personalities.
00:23
I have two primary personalities
00:26
that have been in conflict and conversation within me
00:29
since I was a little girl.
00:31
I call them "the mystic"
00:33
and "the warrior."
00:35
I was born into a family
00:37
of politically active,
00:39
intellectual atheists.
00:41
There was this equation in my family that went something like this:
00:43
if you are intelligent,
00:46
you therefore are not spiritual.
00:48
I was the freak of the family.
00:51
I was this weird little kid
00:53
who wanted to have deep talks
00:55
about the worlds that might exist
00:57
beyond the ones that we perceive with our senses.
01:00
I wanted to know
01:03
if what we human beings see
01:05
and hear and think
01:07
is a full and accurate picture
01:10
of reality.
01:12
So, looking for answers,
01:14
I went to Catholic mass.
01:16
I tagged along with my neighbors.
01:18
I read Sartre and Socrates.
01:20
And then a wonderful thing happened
01:22
when I was in high school:
01:24
Gurus from the East
01:26
started washing up on the shores of America.
01:28
And I said to myself,
01:31
"I wanna get me one of them."
01:33
And ever since,
01:35
I've been walking the mystic path,
01:37
trying to peer beyond
01:40
what Albert Einstein called
01:42
"the optical delusion
01:44
of everyday consciousness."
01:46
So what did he mean by this? I'll show you.
01:49
Take a breath right now
01:52
of this clear air in this room.
01:54
Now, see this strange,
01:58
underwater,
02:01
coral reef-looking thing?
02:04
It's actually a person's trachea,
02:06
and those colored globs
02:09
are microbes
02:11
that are actually swimming around in this room
02:13
right now, all around us.
02:15
If we're blind to this simple biology,
02:18
imagine what we're missing
02:21
at the smallest subatomic level right now
02:24
and at the grandest cosmic levels.
02:27
My years as a mystic
02:30
have made me question
02:33
almost all my assumptions.
02:35
They've made me a proud I-don't-know-it-all.
02:37
Now when the mystic part of me
02:41
jabbers on and on like this,
02:43
the warrior rolls her eyes.
02:45
She's concerned
02:48
about what's happening in this world right now.
02:51
She's worried.
02:55
She says, "Excuse me, I'm pissed off,
02:57
and I know a few things,
03:00
and we better get busy about them right now."
03:02
I've spent my life as a warrior,
03:04
working for women's issues,
03:06
working on political campaigns,
03:08
being an activist for the environment.
03:11
And it can be sort of crazy-making,
03:14
housing both the mystic and the warrior
03:17
in one body.
03:19
I've always been attracted
03:21
to those rare people
03:24
who pull that off,
03:26
who devote their lives to humanity
03:28
with the grit of the warrior
03:30
and the grace of the mystic --
03:32
people like Martin Luther King, Jr.,
03:35
who wrote, "I can never be
03:38
what I ought to be
03:40
until you are
03:42
what you ought to be.
03:44
This," he wrote, "is the interrelated structure
03:46
of reality."
03:49
Then Mother Teresa, another mystic warrior,
03:51
who said, "The problem with the world
03:54
is that we draw the circle of our family
03:57
too small."
04:00
And Nelson Mandela,
04:02
who lives by the African concept
04:04
of "ubuntu,"
04:06
which means "I need you
04:08
in order to be me,
04:10
and you need me in order to be you."
04:12
Now we all love to trot out
04:15
these three mystic warriors
04:17
as if they were born
04:19
with the saint gene.
04:21
But we all actually have
04:23
the same capacity that they do,
04:25
and we need to do
04:28
their work now.
04:30
I'm deeply disturbed
04:32
by the ways in which all of our cultures
04:34
are demonizing "the Other"
04:37
by the voice we're giving
04:40
to the most divisive among us.
04:42
Listen to these titles
04:45
of some of the bestselling books
04:47
from both sides of the political divide
04:49
here in the U.S.
04:51
"Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder,"
04:53
"Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,"
04:56
"Pinheads and Patriots,"
04:59
"Arguing With Idiots."
05:02
They're supposedly tongue-in-cheek,
05:04
but they're actually dangerous.
05:06
Now here's a title that may sound familiar,
05:09
but whose author may surprise you:
05:11
"Four-and-a-Half-Years of Struggle
05:14
Against Lies, Stupidity
05:16
and Cowardice."
05:18
Who wrote that?
05:20
That was Adolf Hitler's first title
05:22
for "Mein Kampf" -- "My Struggle" --
05:24
the book that launched the Nazi party.
05:27
The worst eras in human history,
05:30
whether in Cambodia or Germany
05:32
or Rwanda,
05:34
they start like this, with negative other-izing.
05:36
And then they morph
05:39
into violent extremism.
05:41
This is why I'm launching a new initiative.
05:44
And it's to help all of us,
05:47
myself included,
05:50
to counteract the tendency
05:52
to "otherize."
05:54
And I realize we're all busy people,
05:56
so don't worry, you can do this on a lunch break.
05:59
I'm calling my initiative,
06:02
"Take the Other to Lunch."
06:04
If you are
06:07
a Republican,
06:09
you can take a Democrat to lunch,
06:11
or if you're a Democrat,
06:14
think of it
06:17
as taking a Republican to lunch.
06:19
Now if the idea of taking any of these people to lunch
06:21
makes you lose your appetite,
06:24
I suggest you start more local,
06:27
because there is no shortage of the Other
06:30
right in your own neighborhood.
06:33
Maybe that person
06:36
who worships at the mosque,
06:38
or the church or the synagogue, down the street.
06:40
Or someone from the other side
06:43
of the abortion conflict.
06:45
Or maybe your brother-in-law
06:48
who doesn't believe in global warming.
06:50
Anyone whose lifestyle may frighten you,
06:53
or whose point of view
06:58
makes smoke come out of your ears.
07:00
A couple of weeks ago,
07:04
I took a Conservative Tea Party woman to lunch.
07:06
Now on paper, she passed my smoking ears test.
07:11
She's an activist from the Right,
07:15
and I'm an activist from the Left.
07:17
And we used some guidelines
07:21
to keep our conversation elevated,
07:23
and you can use them too,
07:25
because I know you're all going
07:27
to take an Other to lunch.
07:29
So first of all, decide on a goal:
07:31
to get to know one person
07:34
from a group you may have negatively stereotyped.
07:36
And then, before you get together,
07:41
agree on some ground rules.
07:43
My Tea Party lunchmate and I
07:45
came up with these:
07:48
don't persuade, defend
07:50
or interrupt.
07:52
Be curious;
07:54
be conversational; be real.
07:56
And listen.
07:58
From there, we dove in.
08:00
And we used these questions:
08:02
Share some of your life experiences with me.
08:04
What issues
08:07
deeply concern you?
08:09
And what have you always wanted to ask
08:11
someone from the other side?
08:13
My lunch partner and I
08:16
came away with some really important insights,
08:18
and I'm going to share just one with you.
08:20
I think it has relevance
08:23
to any problem
08:25
between people anywhere.
08:27
I asked her why her side
08:29
makes such outrageous allegations
08:32
and lies about my side.
08:34
"What?" she wanted to know.
08:37
"Like we're a bunch
08:39
of elitist,
08:41
morally-corrupt terrorist-lovers."
08:43
Well, she was shocked.
08:45
She thought my side
08:47
beat up on her side way more often,
08:49
that we called them brainless,
08:52
gun-toting racists,
08:54
and we both marveled
08:57
at the labels that fit
08:59
none of the people
09:01
we actually know.
09:03
And since we had established some trust,
09:05
we believed in each other's sincerity.
09:07
We agreed we'd speak up in our own communities
09:11
when we witnessed
09:14
the kind of "otherizing" talk
09:16
that can wound
09:18
and fester into paranoia
09:20
and then be used by those on the fringes
09:22
to incite.
09:25
By the end of our lunch,
09:27
we acknowledged each other's openness.
09:29
Neither of us had tried to change the other.
09:31
But we also hadn't pretended
09:34
that our differences were just going to melt away
09:37
after a lunch.
09:40
Instead, we had taken
09:45
first steps together,
09:47
past our knee-jerk reactions,
09:49
to the ubuntu place,
09:51
which is the only place
09:53
where solutions
09:55
to our most intractable-seeming problems
09:57
will be found.
10:01
Who should you invite to lunch?
10:03
Next time you catch yourself
10:06
in the act of otherizing,
10:08
that will be your clue.
10:10
And what might happen at your lunch?
10:12
Will the heavens open
10:15
and "We Are the World" play over the restaurant sound system?
10:17
Probably not.
10:20
Because ubuntu work is slow,
10:22
and it's difficult.
10:24
It's two people
10:26
dropping the pretense
10:28
of being know-it-alls.
10:30
It's two people,
10:32
two warriors,
10:34
dropping their weapons
10:36
and reaching toward each other.
10:38
Here's how the great Persian poet Rumi put it:
10:41
"Out beyond ideas
10:45
of wrong-doing and right-doing,
10:48
there is a field.
10:51
I'll meet you there."
10:53
(Applause)
10:55

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About the Speaker:

Elizabeth Lesser - Wellness specialist
Healing expert and author Elizabeth Lesser has spent decades helping individuals heal, and showing how we can mend society as well.

Why you should listen

As an author and co-founder of the Omega Institute, a learning center devoted to health, wellness and social change, Elizabeth Lesser helps her readers and students transform their lives after brushes with pain, adversity and life’s myriad problems.

In Broken Open, Lesser traces the steps of the “Phoenix Process” -- how we can recover following the inevitable breaks in the fabrics of our daily lives. Her memoir, Marrowdescribes the deepening bond forged by a harrowing bone marrow transplant, for which Lesser was the donor and her sister Maggie the recipient.

More profile about the speaker
Elizabeth Lesser | Speaker | TED.com