Photo: Marcos Chin
Looking past divisive politics and differing views to the person on the other side of the issue may be challenging, but it's not impossible. Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of the Omega Institute and author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, suggests starting with lunch.
"Otherising" is the dangerous act of turning someone into the enemy just because he or she looks different, prays different, speaks different, or thinks different. Some of history's most tragic events—wars, genocides, terrorist acts—began with ordinary people demonizing other ordinary people.
I noticed a remarkable amount of otherising during the 2008 presidential race. And there was one woman doing it who bothered me the most—me! I'm a true believer in our capacity to care and cooperate, but there I was, participating in otherising rants, calling whole groups of people evil wrongdoers, though I had never talked to them.
Which is how I came to find myself having lunch with an activist from the other side, talking about our kids, jobs, and hopes for society. It was the first of many such meetings I've had in the years since in an attempt to breed civility in my heart. I call my experiment Take the Other to Lunch.
First, think of a person you may be otherising—maybe a woman from a different side of the abortion debate or your brother who doesn't believe in global warming. Next, tell that person you'd like to understand him or her better. Ask if they would like to do the same with you. Agree to these ground rules: Be curious, conversational, and real. Don't persuade or interrupt. Listen, listen, listen. (You can start by asking: What were some of your most defining experiences? What issues deeply concern you? What have you always wanted to ask someone from the "other side"?)
Will the heavens open and "We Are the World" start playing over the restaurant's sound system? Doubtful. But in the lunches I have shared, I have grown in compassion and patience. And as another election nears, perhaps if enough of us take each other to lunch, we can give our country the civility makeover it needs.
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From the September 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!