Lessons on How to Bridge the Divide from “The Turkey Prince”

We are not stuck without any way across the gapping chasm that divides us. Some lessons from an unusual parable can guide us across the divide.

The people have spoken in record numbers: Donald J. Trump decisively lost his reelection bid for president of the United States. At the same time, he gathered more votes than any other presidential candidate in history (74,223,744), except for the even bigger number his opponent, Joe Biden, collected (81,283,485).

After this historic election, the nation remains deeply divided. The massive problems we face need consensus to be solved, and there isn’t much consensus on the horizon fueled by tribalism and disagreement on what is real and what is fake or rigged.

In the face of a seemingly insurmountable divide, a parable called “The Turkey Prince” by Rebbe Nachman (an 18th-century Jewish sage) can be used as a guide to help us bridge the chasm in our hyper-partisan nation.

In the parable, a king and queen are distraught because their son has gone mad and thinks he is a turkey. He spends his days naked under the dining room table making turkey noises. The royal physicians lost hope for a cure. In desperation, the king turned to an unnamed sage for assistance.

The sage began his treatment by taking his clothes off and joining the prince under the table. The sage then made turkey noises like the prince. Over time, the sage gained the prince’s trust. He asked for two shirts to be thrown under the table. The sage said to the prince, “Why can’t a turkey wear a shirt?” The prince agreed it was not a problem for a turkey to wear a shirt and still be a turkey. They both put on shirts and went about their turkey business under the table.

The sage continued with this logic until they were fully dressed. Eventually, the sage got up and said to the turkey prince, “Why can’t a turkey sit at the table and still be a turkey?” The prince agreed. In this way, the sage brought the prince fully back to himself.

There are many interpretations of “The Turkey Prince.” In essence, its message is when we forget who we are at our core, distress and hurt follows. Our deluded sense of who we think we are and in turn, what we believe to be important, leads to poor choices that tend to increase suffering and take us further away from our true selves.

The “madness” of the turkey prince is in his covering over who he really is. His false persona limited him and prevented him from connecting to people who were not in his turkey tribe and from serving life as he was meant to.

In taking off his clothes and joining the prince under the table, the sage gives us a clue as to what we need to do to go beyond our tribal attachments and the incompatible views of reality that are tearing the country apart. The “taking off our clothes” that we need to do is to drop anything in the way of seeing the humanity in the other. We can make space to see those we vehemently disagree with as the brothers and sisters they truly are. We need to focus on what deeply binds us, the love that is at the core of life, and step-by-step build trust based on what we all share.

As in the parable, returning is not going to be easy. At times, it is will be uncomfortable and frustrating. You might feel like giving up and retreat to what is familiar. It will take work and time. It will take remembering that it is possible to listen with an open mind to someone while you disagree with him or her. It will take respecting someone because fundamentally he or she deserves it. It will take not writing a person off when he or she does not instantly transform into who you want him or her to be. It will take an expansive vision that recognizes we are bound in this life together and can make wise choices from that place.

We live in remarkable times. There is so much potential to transform our country and this world into a more just, equitable, healthy, and prosperous place. Let’s do the work in front of us with joy and passion, seize this time to expand our vision, and in the process, raise all of us up.

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