How often do you practice unbuntu?

Today is January 13 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you practice unbuntu?” This entire Navigate the Chaos series illustrates different strategies individuals use in the art of living. What works for one person may fail miserably for another. A strategy that seems perfectly reasonable for one person to try would be unrealistic for another. Even though a strategy worked once, it does not necessarily mean it will work a second time for the same person. There are nuances to understand in the art of living. There are no secrets to success. There is no one right path to follow. There is no best approach. Just because your mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or whoever did X does not mean X is right for you. In fact, pursuing X might be the exact opposite of what you need to do.

Today’s reflection involves the philosophy of ubuntu, derived from a Nguni word, meaning “humanity,” or “the quality of being human.” Ubuntu has its roots in humanist African philosophy, where the idea of community is one of the building blocks of society. Ubuntu is that nebulous concept of common humanity, oneness: humanity, you, and me both. For some who navigate the chaos, ubuntu has been a powerful tool to use as they translated their dreams into reality.

This African proverb reveals a world view that we owe our selfhood to others, that we are first and foremost social beings, that, if you will, no man/woman is an island, or as some would suggest, “One finger cannot pick up a grain.” Ubuntu is, at the same time, a deeply personal philosophy that calls on us to mirror our humanity for each other. Since the transition to democracy in South Africa with the Nelson Mandela presidency in 1994, the term has become more widely known outside of Southern Africa, notably popularized to English-language readers through the ubuntu theology of Desmond Tutu.

In Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he describes a person with ubuntu as "open and available to others, affirming of others ... has a proper self-assurance." The ubuntu this person possesses comes from being part of a greater whole. South Africa's post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission, which was chaired by Tutu, would have borrowed from ubuntu philosophy.

At Nelson Mandela's memorial in December 2013, United States President Barack Obama spoke about Ubuntu, saying: “There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.” Others outside of politics, like coach Doc Rivers, used ubuntu to unite his team.

In the 2020 Netflix's documentary series The Playbook, NBA coach Doc Rivers is profiled. Rivers used ubuntu to help led the 2008 Celtics to their first NBA championship in 22 years. He learned about ubuntu by coincidence but once he understood its philosophy Rivers introduced it to the team. Under Rivers' leadership, this concept unified the Celtics. To him, the philosophy meant, "I cannot be all I can be, unless you are all you can be. I can never be threatened by you because you're good, because the better you are, the better I am." It was the perfect concept for their team, turning a group of talented yet disparate players into a single, tight-knit unit.

Ubuntu allowed the Celtics, who were coming off a 24-58 season that had fans calling for Rivers to be fired, to unite the three superstar players-Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett-with the rest of the team. "The concern was that all three were leaders," Rivers explained in the episode. "I told them, if we're going to win, we're going to have to sacrifice. You are going to have to change . . . That was the challenge: getting them to buy in to being a team." Slowly, it caught on. "Our team started living ubuntu," Rivers said. The team used it as their pregame chant as they turned in a winning season and made their run through the postseason. After winning the Finals, the team had the word ubuntu etched into their championship rings.

Ubuntu allows those involved to understand their connectedness, their humanity, and their interdependence. Perhaps you lead a team and need to help them understand how important they are to each other. Maybe you are part of a disparate group of individuals lost in need of direction. Ubuntu offers a viable strategy to use to navigate the chaos and practice the art of living. It will not always work. In fact, Doc Rivers brought the concept of ubuntu to the Los Angeles Clippers after he left Boston. The Clippers never embraced ubuntu like the Celtics did.

As you go about your day, spend a moment to reflect upon ubuntu and see if it would work as a strategy for your life.