This evening, a friend of mine named Josh Nadeau hosted a “Kitchen Talks” event on death and dying and so, naturally, I had to attend.
Josh describes the broader initiative as follows:
Kitchen Talks is a series of events where people from different walks of life gather to discuss controversial topics. It was dreamed up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where ‘kitchen talk’ refers to the conversations that, back in the Soviet Union, were too contentious to be had outside the home.
A generation ago, the kitchen was a safe space to discuss history, politics, sex, religion and everything else under the sun. We hope that our own “kitchen” provides an opportunity, and a safe space, to engage with the people and the ideas we don’t always encounter in our everyday lives. We strive not only to speak, but to facilitate an encounter that respects the fact that we all have different life experiences and come at important questions from different angles.
Our meetings involve introductions, discussions, large-group exercises, small group work, anonymous activities and more. We encourage all participants to join the conversation, but understand if some decide to listen more than to share. Our facilitators come with a prepared set of discussion questions and exercises, but often adjust their plans depending on the group and what participants are interested in discussing that day.
I was struck by Josh’s ability to offer compelling prompts to the diverse participants he convened. Everyone certainly diverged in terms of viewpoints, however it was a group that self-selected on the basis of having a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to affirm what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference.”
One of these interesting prompts was: “Describe the anti-you when it comes to the topic of death and dying? What are some of the views and values of someone who thinks completely differently than you do about this?”
For this questions, participants quickly typed their responses – sometimes a few in sequence – into the chat.
It was fascinating – particularly when someone’s description of their antithesis made you go, “Oh, but that’s me!”
After having a moment to read one another’s comments, a few of the participants unpacked their reflections verbally in more depth.
Next, Josh asked the group, “Could you hold space with that other?”
And this led to some admissions that there are some views and values that others hold that do, in fact, make it difficult to hold space with them, if we are being honest about it.
The session included a good mix of personal and theoretical considerations and represented a wide spectrum of beliefs about suffering, autonomy, agency, meaning, and community.
My favourite question raised in the context of our discussions about suffering was: “What beauty is there to be found in the things we don’t choose?”
I very much appreciated this initiative to intentionally cultivate dialogue among those who disagree.
To check out Kitchen Talks and to get updates about future meetings, click here.