I Am, Because You Are

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I recently had lunch with a dear friend whom I have not seen for quite some time. I’ve missed him and the time we shared over a meal was precious. I have missed spending real life time with my community and that’s a pretty bold statement for an introvert like me. If there’s one thing this past year has really brought home for me, is the importance of community.

I recently reread “The Book of Joy.” It’s a wonderful book of interviews with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These men are two of the most joyful people on earth, despite (or perhaps because of) immense hardships they have suffered during their lives including over 50 years of exile and severe oppression. The interviews took place during the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday celebration, and brought these two friends together to reveal the secrets of joy.

Somewhere near the beginning of the book, Archbishop Tutu brought up the concept of Ubuntu (pronounced oo-boon-too). The Archbishop explained it as “A person is a person through other persons.” Roughly translated, it is the concept of community.

I wanted to learn more about this Ubuntu concept, so I took to Google. Once I got past the articles for Ubuntu, the open source operating system for computers (who knew?), I found some interesting stuff. Ubuntu is a southern African philosophy that literally means “humanity” and is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”

We’re all connected, a concept I know to be true. I can get behind that, so I continued my quest to find out more. The Ubuntu philosophy says that we are humans because of others, that we are social beings first and without others, we wouldn’t exist. As the Archbishop says, “…after all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world.” And beyond that, it really speaks to connection and community.

When apartheid came to an end in 1991, the leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela asked Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu made Ubuntu a very critical part of that time, to help his country move forward beyond the human rights crimes of the apartheid regimes. In the book “Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu,” he is quoted as saying Ubuntu “speaks of the very essence of being human. … You are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’”

Mandela’s take on Ubuntu is this: “In the old days when we were young, a traveller through a country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or water; once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is, are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you, and enable it to improve? These are important things in life. And if you can do that, you have done something very important.”

So this is what I get from all of this:

  • We are all connected, science knows this, I know this, the people that practice the Ubuntu philosophy know this to be true.
  • When we help each other, when we raise each other up, we all benefit.
  • If we all embraced the practice of Ubuntu, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

As we (hopefully) emerge from our isolation after over a year, let us embrace Ubuntu, and recognize that we are human because we belong.

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