Sunday, February 9, 2014

Towards Becoming A Better Person: Ubuntu

Towards Becoming A Complete Person

In the Xhosa culture of South Africa, there is a word, ubuntu.  Roughly translated, it is the concept of "a  person is a person through other persons".  That is, I am not who I am really meant to be in this life, unless I am in service to, and compassionate towards other persons.  It is only through empathy, compassion, and service that I fulfill my mission in this life to God to be whole, to be complete.  One's life is not fulfilled and does not have complete and honest meaning unless one is of service to others, and is fully compassionate.

Desmond Tutu writes of this concept, this essence of culture and humanity, in his book, God is Not A Christian: Speaking Truth in Times of Crisis. (2011).

Much of Western thought is exemplified by Descartes' maxim, "I think, therefore, I am."  Yet, Archbishop Tutu urges us to think outside of Western thought, and view our lives in terms of "I am because I belong."  We need other human beings to survive, and to find real meaning in our lives.

Each of us is different, and we each have gifts.  Our gifts are not the gifts of our neighbors, and our neighbors' gifts are not ours.  In that, we have need for each other.

"Ubuntu speaks of spiritual attributes such as generosity, hospitality, compassion, caring, sharing.  You could be affluent in material possession, but still be without ubuntu.  This concept speaks of how people are more important than things, than profits, than material possessions.  It speaks about the intrinsic worth of people not dependent on extraneous things such as status, race, creed, gender or achievement."  (Tutu, p 22)

In Xhosa culture, ubuntu is cherished and coveted more than anything else.  This quality in people distinguishes people from other animals.

Western society has made enormous progress, because of our personal drive and initiative.  Yet, there are substantial costs to this "progress".  People are lonely, and there is an obsession with achievement and success.  Such a culture views failure as a personal, even moral, disaster.  We tend to not forgive and to accept people who have "failed" in the eyes of society.

Such a culture does not give much value to forgiveness and compassion.  We tend to not understand suffering, or to identify with people who are suffering, including ourselves.  In that experience and view, we risk becoming less human, less fulfilled.

In other cultures, such as the Maori of New Zealand, and Aborigines in Australia, each person is highly valued, and each person has a a clear identity and role in their culture.  Everyone has value, and everyone's participation in society has a cherished value in that society.  Everyone is worthy, and everyone has a story to tell.

Indeed, we are here so that we can tell our story, and the story of our people.  In that story is the connection with others, with living our lives with and through other people.  And, as we go about our lives, we are in service to and living for the benefit of others.  Compassion and forgiveness, rehabilitation, and acceptance, are all strong and cherished values.  In life, we are here to help others connect with God, with their people, and with the stories of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and with the world.  We are interconnected, and in that interconnectedness, there is love and purpose.

Not that the Xhosa, the Maori, or the Aborigines have perfect, ideal cultures, and not that they are always happy and fulfilled.  Like any people, they have their problems, and their stresses, as well as their struggles and deep questions.  Yet, they have a strong sense of community and they deeply value every member.  Everyone has a role to play, and a mission in their lives to serve others, to be a part of the greater whole.

Forgiveness is a challenging topic.  Contemplating true forgiveness, for me, is often a struggle and a dilemma.  I do not find easy answers and easy solutions to the hard questions and the difficult anxieties and challenges I have about many things.

Yet, if I approach my wrestling matches with a sense of Ubuntu, and passion towards finding forgiveness deep inside of my soul, then I can see that much of my struggles are eased, and that there is a way out of the wilderness, and that I am moving forward on my path to trying to live better, to live more honestly.  The burdens I have are lifted a bit, and I can see a glimmer of the Light ahead in my journey.

Neal Lemery

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