Food For Thought
"On a regular, fortnightly basis, for example, we ought to all meet together at lunch. And frankly, I'm tired of sitting down to so many lunches with only Republicans and hearing that echo chamber, and I think Democrats must feel the same way."—Senator Roger Wicker, in a 2013 interview on National Public Radio.
"I would host groups of Israelis at my home or in the homes of my friends one weekend every monthŹĄ. [W]e'd have coffee and sweets together-all of us, the Israelis and the Palestinians.... These get-togethers brought home to me how similar we are when it comes to socializing. We're expressive. We talk loud, and the decibel level goes up with the intensity of the conversation. The more interesting it gets, the noisier we become. That's how Palestinians and Israelis are. But I can say that even the most vociferous arguments almost always ended with the exchange of telephone numbers and the forging of friendships."—Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall not Hate.
Humans, throughout history and around the world, have the urge to gather. We come together because we are naturally communal. We try to support and understand one another; and to do this, we must talk. In order to talk, we must use the only tool that we all have access to: words. But most of us wield that tool clumsily, and human communication becomes anxious and error-prone. We're all of us too disastrous—in too much of a hurry, too set on our ideas—to communicate effectively in short spurts in short settings. To overcome this, we need time together, and lots of it.
I once heard a keynote address by the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Peter Milliken. He told us that, although parliamentary sessions have always been contentious, they have lately gotten a little meaner. He blames this on changes in Parliamentary business hours. When Parliament met during the afternoon and evening, the Members of Parliament would all gather in the cafeteria between sessions for dinner, where there just wasn't enough room in the designated-party areas for everyone to sit together along party lines. People of vastly different ideologies were forced to share a meal together, and this made for daily (and lively) conversations. In other words, MPs had a chance to talk and understand each other outside of House of Commons sessions.
When parliamentary hours shifted, and the evening sessions were done away with, MPs went home at the end of the afternoon, or went out for dinner in ideological groupings. The opportunity for cross-party time together (and lots of it) was lost. While Milliken was Speaker, he held dinner parties at his residence, inviting carefully-chosen mixtures of political views. He said this worked very well—except there were some who refused his invitations. He didn't tell us who these were, even though the room was itching to know.
Peter Milliken was onto something. Not only must humans gather—and preferably these gatherings are useful ways to understand one another—but the best way to gather is over food. The most common and insidious tendency in humankind is for one grouping of humans to talk in such a way that another grouping becomes increasingly "other." On this wide and easy road of emphasizing "otherness", there is no connection between the varied groups. Our words become weapons rather than tools, creating scenarios that have nothing to do with real people who are real humans like everyone else: prone to failings and bursting with brilliance. Unchecked, this "other" group quickly turns into "less." Historically, this has led to a whole range of disgrace.
On the difficult, narrow road of intentional connection, we cannot ignore one another. Our tool of words is forced to be put to immediate and constrained use. If falsities try to fill up the empty space and become weapons, they immediately bump into reality. That road is walked by spending time together, and lots of it. As always, lots of time is best done around food.
A long time ago, shortly after Jesus established his Way, the Apostle Peter was required to eat a meal with someone who had always been, from his perspective, "other." Peter was not allowed to be picky about what was served to him; that was made very clear. It was the beginning of a positive connection between two very different cultures, who have been sharing meals (communion) together ever since.
A couple of thousand years later, a doctor from Gaza (quoted above) also attempted to connect two cultures, gathering them together over food. He already had positive connections with mixed groupings through his work in Israeli hospitals, and he could see that the circulating stories of "other" were exaggerated. He gathered the two groups together deliberately to promote understanding, and maintained his stance--"…we should seek ways to be together—at soccer matches, at conferences, at family dinners."—even when three of his children were killed in an aggressive act by the other group. I consider this Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish to be a hero of the spirit of the gathering.
Back in the familiar world of Canadian politics, the tendency toward "other" is not so much dangerous as it is tiresome. Political parties dismiss everything the "other" says or does, instead of co-operating as they should. But the Canada that exists outside that curious culture of politics is vulnerable to the same thing. We tend to group ourselves along ideological lines, easily creating uninformed versions of what other people are really like. In Canada, such sluggish self-referencing doesn't make us dangerous; just irrelevant.
When differing ideas are exposed to one another, it serves to sharpen our common tool; a tool that is no longer a sword or a spear, instead becoming a plough or a pruning knife. Our words become effective. The only way to do this is to get to know one another. It's time to roll up our sleeves, get out some food, and gather.