“Peace is like bread. You have to make it every day,” I’ve often said, riffing off of Ursula K. Le Guin. Lately, I’ve been saying that peace is bread. Or bread is peace, anyway.
Think about it. At the most basic level, carbohydrates help our brains produce serotonin, a chemical that makes us feel calm, cheerful, and capable. Dare I say peaceful? Maybe it’s because of this, maybe not, but many major cultures consider “breaking bread” a central tradition. Breaking bread together enables, and so has come to symbolize, gathering together, sharing life, having things in common. The word “companions” literally means “those who share bread.”
It’s a bad idea to get too abstract about this. Sharing bread — or sharing bread as part of a larger meal — isn’t an idea. You have to do it. We’ve all heard that families who eat together are more stable, have better lives together. Friends, too.
But what about opponents? I have learned by doing over the years that inviting people into my home for a meal changes our relationship. If I know that someone in my community is opposed to a project I’m involved in, I invite them over for dinner. We don’t even have to talk about the issue we don’t agree on. In fact, I usually make sure that we don’t (much), in the interests of having a pleasant meal. But here’s the thing: I can’t hate someone in quite the same way after I’ve shared a meal with them. I still may not agree with them, but they aren’t just opponents or obstacles anymore. They’re on their way to becoming companions.
During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, there were some who expressed outrage because Barak Obama had apparently said that he would “sit down at the table” with anyone, friend or foe. My immediate reaction was, “I hope he does!” Of course, I know that the “table” they were referring to is the table of negotiation, the table where people sit opposite one another with piles of paper and positions stacked squarely in front of them. But what if it were a dinner table? Not a state dinner for hundreds of guests in formal attire, but a dinner for six or so, where bread and salt are passed back and forth, and at least one person at the table has made at least some of the food being eaten?
Would the hosts and guests of such a meal be forced to agree with one another on policy afterward? Of course not! But it’s possible that they wouldn’t be able to think about one another in quite the same way as before.
Of course, I also know that this is a fairy tale of a sort. World leaders don’t do this sort of thing. But they could. More importantly, though, we can. We can. So let us.