A group of children were gathered in a field for some fun; the western-born teacher guiding the play among these two dozen young African children suggested they all race to a tree about 100 feet away, encouraging them by explaining that he had a prize - a basket of candy - for the winner. As their eyes lit up, he said, “On your marks…get set…GO!” Instead of seeing all the children bound for the finish line to see who was the fastest, the teacher watched in awe as spontaneously, the children all grabbed one another's hands and ran joyfully in a line, finishing the “race” together. As they all jumped in the air triumphantly to celebrate their united victory, and the promise of a sweet treat, the westerner - still stunned by what he’d just witnessed, asked why they’d raced together instead of seeing which one of them could run the fastest and win. They looked at the teacher as if he was being silly and replied, “It wouldn’t be any fun if just one of us got all the candy; now we all get to share and enjoy it together.”
This story reflects the spirit of what is known in Africa as Ubuntu, and it’s a potential game-changer for families, communities, groups, teams, organizations and for our country. Let’s explore.
Ubuntu is often used to describe the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. To the observer, Ubuntu can be seen and felt in the spirit of willing participation, unquestioning cooperation, warmth, openness, and personal dignity. In Africa, Ubuntu means love, truth, peace, happiness, eternal optimism and inner goodness. As I served briefly in the west-African nation of Togo some years ago, my beginners’ eyes and heart were overwhelmed by what I called at the time, overwhelming hospitality toward all.
Having studied the Blue Zones, places in the world where people are living longer and better, I was familiar with research that suggests that having the ‘right tribe’ is highly correlated to overall wellbeing and longevity. Yes, it’s what your Mom told you in middle school as you were beginning to develop a friend group, “Be careful; birds of a feather flock together.” Turns out Mom was right; we do directly influence one anothers’ beliefs, choices and consequently our health, wellbeing and success. In corporate America the collective "way we are" is often referred to as the culture of an organization. I pondered, "could fostering the spirit of Ubuntu have positive ramifications for performance and life success in the United States?"
While serving in Africa, Ubuntu simply looked like boundless happiness despite the circumstances of life, circumstances that were far more challenging than any I’d previously experienced, even in the slums and ghettos of America. And this happiness infused all those around with a general sense of joy and possibility. The mutual support borne from this clear sense of living in abundance (even though they had nothing of a material nature and were living in shacks built of rusty corregated metal if they were lucky) and a universal sense of sincere appreciation for others was awe-inspiring. The positive human energy radiating in every village in Togo, Africa seemed palpable and very appealing. When I later explored this with my friend Judy who had lived for several years working as a missionary in Africa, she affirmed how special and pervasive this cultural construct of Ubuntu seems to be. As a capitalist at heart, this concept was a little hard to swallow…at first.
As I sought to deepen my exploration of happiness and joy over the past decade, I participated in a course on Mindfulness which then heightened my curiosity about Buddhism. I learned there are seven Buddhist beliefs that we now know through science, do, in fact, lead to greater happiness:
1) Being mindful and present; we now understand that wisdom, creativity and innovation emerges as the mind is pure and calm.
2) Avoiding comparisons; for Buddhists it makes no sense to compare and feel superior or inferior since we are all parts of a unified whole. Remind you of Ubuntu? The recent research on some of the unhealthy consequences of social media underscore the negative implications of comparison.
3) Don’t strive for money; research consistently reveals that people who put money high on their priority list are more at risk for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, and score lower on tests of vitality and self-actualization.
4) Work towards meaningful goals; the Buddhist principle of ‘right effort’ tells us to find balance which is increasingly complex in the modern world.
5) Develop close relationships; for the Buddha, spiritual friendship was ‘the world of the spiritual life.’ Generosity, kind words, beneficial help and consistency in the face of events, hold people together; the religious tradition emphasizes the idea of non-attachment, which allows us to love others unconditionally without any need or desire to control or change them.
6) Practice gratitude; we now have powerful science underscoring the transformational physiological benefits of gratitude practices.
7) Be generous; this mirrors what I’ve always experienced, “As we give, so shall we receive.”
As a Christian, these precepts all make sense to me; Jesus underscored for us that the greatest commandments are, simply stated, ‘Love God’ and ‘Love One Another’. And for me, most religious traditions to which I’ve been exposed seem to coalesce around this core understanding.
When the Christian apostle Paul spoke to the people of Corinth he gave us the most frequently used passage in modern Christian marriage ceremonies, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, nor does it keep records of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails.”
During a recent funeral service, a young woman’s eulogy focused on a life that had reflected this passage from the book of Corinthians. She remarked, “He was patient. He was kind. He didn’t concern himself with being jealous. He never boasted. He didn’t dishonor or speak badly of others, and he was never self-seeking.” It seemed to her that he never let anger guide him, and he certainly kept no record of any wrongdoings. In her estimation, though imperfect, he was the definition of love; and as together we reflected on this man’s life and times, we began to see the illustration that his life was for all us.
This beautiful young woman went on to describe very eloquently how his loving character and life had inspired her to become the women she was becoming. “I am because we are”…Ubuntu.
We are all connected. How will you strengthen the culture of your family, your community or your workplace? I am, because you are; we are united in our shared humanity. Are you a reflection of the hearts and minds of those around you? Are the best qualities of our culture getting passed on from generation to generation, or even shift to shift? Let's all consider how adopting a spirit of Ubuntu could not only boost performance through shared vision, understanding and mutual support, but how it could inspire those within our circles to become better versions of themselves; then let's further consider the ripple effect that our efforts might trigger. Wow!
There's lots of conversation today about how we are better together; not only is there a strong business case for fostering the spirit of Ubuntu today...but it's a legacy whose time has come. I am, because we are. Let's all consider how we can strenghten our "We". In the words of my friend and mentor, John O'Leary, "What more can I do?"