I am because we are.
If the word Ubuntu makes you tilt your head and think of an open-source Operating System that you heard about in the early 2000’s, then we were in the same boat. The Playbook is a Netflix documentary that captures the winning strategies behind some of the most decorated coaches in the world. In the first episode, the legendary Doc Rivers talks about the word Ubuntu and how it became the anchor to the team’s success in winning the 2008 NBA Championship finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Doc Rivers was a Trustee on the board of Marquette University and after a long board meeting, one of the members came up to him and asked if he had heard of Ubuntu. He responded that he hadn’t. She said, “It isn’t just a word, it’s a way of being. To understand Ubuntu, you must become Ubuntu.” That night he went home, researched the word and found himself still awake at six o’clock in the morning with scribbled notes and papers spread out across his table. He was amazed and instantly knew that if he could incorporate it into the team philosophy, he would be able to get the best out of his players.
Ubuntu is an African philosophy that literally translates to: “I am because we are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an African cleric and theologian known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist explains that Ubuntu is the essence of being human and that a solitary human being is a contradiction. If it wasn’t for other humans around us, we wouldn’t know how to be human. We wouldn’t know how to walk, talk, eat, socialize or how to make some Kama Sutra style kind of love. A person is a person through other people and therefore I cannot be all I am unless you are all that you can be. I can never be threatened by you because the better you are, the better I am.
To understand Ubuntu, we must first acknowledge how deeply interdependent we are upon one another. Let’s use a simplistic example of the economy to see this interdependence at work. Jack grows up and there are an infinite number of random instances that come together to lead him to decide that he wants to become a computer engineer. He finds himself out of love, volition or necessity in a career that is focused on software development. Jack meets a few other software developers and together they decide to geek out and write a program that allows individuals to market their products and services. All the developers benefit from each other’s skills and approaches, which in turn allows for the creation of a quality solution that they then launch into the market.
Suzy comes along and decides the product they’ve developed is exactly the solution she has been looking for. She pays for the licensing, which gives Jack and his developer buddies an opportunity to further geek out, enhance the existing program or create a new one entirely while at the same time building their skills. Simultaneously, Suzy uses the solution to market her product and generate higher profits which allows her to take her kids on a vacation to Tahiti. The vacation supports the tourism industry that provides hotel workers with a viable source of income where they get to utilize their spending power, and the cycle continues endlessly. Consider it the butterfly effect of random and seemingly inconsequential decisions that we make as being not so inconsequential.
Whether we are speaking about human relationships or politics, the philosophy of Ubuntu exists. We learn from our friends, families, acquaintances, strangers and coworkers who we are and who we are not. We understand that we might have an overindulgence for cake because we realize that no one else we know puts on a swimsuit and dives headfirst into it. We learn that we are easy-going by living with a partner who makes us wear those weird shower cap things around our feet when we walk into the house. Similarly, when it comes to differing opinions or politics, it is the same story.
We exist in a more polarized time than ever before and what is worse is that peoples’ convictions in what they believe seem stronger than ever. The media is responsible for a large portion of the polarization that we see today. There is a lot of lazy journalism that piggy backs on stories or events that are aimed to create outrage and controversy. Generally, these stories and events exist on the fringes of where reality exists for most people. At the same time, it is hard to blame the media completely as I am sure producers of networks themselves can’t believe some of the stupid shit people do. It becomes almost mandatory to report on. Watching the news can be like watching Jerry Springer and thinking that’s how all relationships function. The problem with Jerry Springer was, it was so outrageous that you almost felt compelled to watch it. Fuck Jerry Springer and screw the people who made the cut to be on that show.
So how does Ubuntu find its way into human relationships, polarized politics and Jerry Springer? Well, Ubuntu plays out by showing us that if the solitary human is a contradiction, so is an opinion, a position, a lifestyle or a belief. Opposing sides cannot exist without one another and in fact, they sustain one another. If the Democratic party of the United States of America wasn’t formed in 1828, then it is highly possible that the Republican party wouldn’t have been formed in 1854. Capitalism, communism, socialism and fascism, are in a sense, all responses to one another. One side cannot exist without the other. The next time you see two people erratically arguing over a contested belief, know that they are both equally dependent on one another to feel right. If you happen to be the person in that argument, know that the person you are arguing with sustains you. We sustain one another even in opposition. I am because you are and if you aren’t, then I am not. Can someone get Descartes on the phone?
Proponents of Ubuntu believe that the inner core of every person’s humanity has the power to move mountains.
I am a regular patron of the hot food section at the Loblaws across my condo building where I often indulge in a juicy grilled chicken breast topped with roasted red peppers, steaming green beans and seasonal carrots perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper. Outside, leaning against a streetlight is a rotation of homeless elderly statesmen that take on different shifts throughout the course of the day. This is prime real estate for the homeless and a corner like this isn’t easy to conquer. This presents me along with other shoppers the awkward experience of exiting the store with bags of groceries or a steaming hot lunch anticipating the meal to come, only to be faced by an elderly person, hungry, homeless and down on their luck. Everyone including myself becomes skittish. People avoid eye contact, take shallow breaths and tap their feet like crackheads waiting for the streetlight to change as quickly as possible so they can get the hell out of there. It never feels good to walk away.
I wonder if our meals lose some of its taste as we encounter a splitting mirror image of what we are not. I wonder how much of our dissatisfaction is created by the apathy we try to build rather than the empathy we try not to give into. The philosophy of Ubuntu, which is the very essence of humanity, begs the question, how can I be happy if you are not happy? How can my stomach be full if your’s is empty? Maybe there is a core of our being which cannot rationalize the existing state of suffering in the world and our role in it.
What could be possible if we gave into our humanity? How far reaching could the implications be?
If we are able to realize that every person we come across in life is part of the fabric that is woven together to sustain us, then the only question left to ask is, how can I be happy when you are not?