You might have heard of the indigenous South African philosophy of ubuntu, “I am because of who we all are.” Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, in a conversation earlier this year with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, she described the meaning of ubuntu as “a person becomes a human being through other people.”
As a clinical psychologist who worked alongside Bishop Desmond Tutu on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Gobodo-Madikizela witnessed firsthand the invisible threads among us. How victims and perpetrators became human beings as they told and listened to each other speak of the suffering, torture, death, loss, and guilt in the decades of apartheid. In A Human Being Died That Night, she explores forgiveness writing, “Forgiveness does not overlook the deed: it rises above it.”
While talking with the Dalai Lama, Gobodo-Madikizela notes another important aspect of ubuntu—mutual responsibility, that we are accountable for one another. She described how witnessing the suffering of others, by the victims and the perpetrators, opens space for the “emergence of the unexpected” to unfold and create a sense of community.
How are we in western democracies, in which people’s sense of isolation and separation nears plague proportions, to understand and live in this perspective on life? Some of you reading this might not think that such a sense of caring, inter-dependence or community is possible or even desirable. Having experienced it with friends, colleagues, and clients, I know it is possible. This unity can feel like a wave of good will, belonging, and being part of something larger than oneself moving through a group and a sense of joy and meaning inside ourselves.
And, having seen the benefits that occur in communities and organizations when people interact with one another with a sense of interconnection, I know it is desirable. Good things get done and momentum continues for wanting to carry on and move forward together.
We are ultimately and entirely social beings. Our brains evolved and are wired to interact with and care about others. This is the reality to which ubuntu points.
It appears that many of us live as if the belief and value underlying ubuntu, oneness of humanity and compassion, is not desirable. On the political level, this is currently being carried out by legislation restricting people’s right to vote and by some refusing to be vaccinated against COVID. What are we to make of this apparent disregard for our fellow humans? Many of you will have understandable political and personal reasons for both. However, when we extend thinking beyond this moment, what is the logical result? Fellow citizens will not be able to vote, our democracy will be weakened; people will get sick and some will die.
We are always in a social circumstance; we are always in relation to others. Even when we are alone, there are others in our memories and imaginings, influencing our minds and bodies. Despite having elevated individual freedom and independence to the sacrosanct, we remain inter-dependent, social beings who depend on others for our survival, physically and emotionally.
Moving from the political realm to the more personal, let us consider the threads that exist among us as we live our lives. How might we live with the spirit of ubuntu at work and in our families? What does it mean to be accountable to one another, to share one humanity, to fully appreciate “I am because of who all of you are and you are because of who I am?” And, when we think of “all of you” or “we” , who do we include in our mind’s eye?
Communication is how we create our social world. Our thoughts, words, tone of voice, actions, gestures, emotions, gestures, facial expressions, and body sensations impact those around us. They are the fundamental aspects of social and cultural processes. These aspects can communicate either anger and separation or forgiveness and love. These often-invisible threads weave a community tapestry of compassion and community or tear us into fragmentation and isolation. We create and are created by the threads in the tapestry we weave every day. We get to choose the threads we weave into it. We get to choose who we are because of who all of us are.