It’s an old philosophy that originated in Africa. It became known in the West largely through the writings of Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
According to Wikipedia, “at its most basic, Ubuntu can be translated as “human kindness”, but its meaning is much bigger in scope than that – it embodies the ideas of connection, community, and mutual caring for all.” It’s a way of living that begins with the premise that “I am” because “We are”. That one’s sense of self is shaped by your relationships with other people. We are human because we participate in relationship. No one is an island, everything we do, good or bad, influences those around us, our family, our friends and society. My humanity is tied to yours.
I have been reading about Ubuntu lately and have concluded that we need to embrace this premise in our schools and our work with youth. Teachers, coaches, and everyone who works with young people should embody the concept of Ubuntu in their everyday practice, implementing its deeply rooted virtues of respect and compassion towards others.
I’m thinking of a recent situation involving a young boy I know named Sam. Sam played on a baseball team. One day, he was at second base in a tournament and didn’t position himself the way the coach had instructed him to. When the batter hit the ball, it went through the infield where Sam was instructed to be, and out into the field causing a run to score for the other team. After the game was over the coach came into the dugout and reprimanded Sam, in front of his teammates, about not being in the correct position. Tears came to Sam’s eyes at which point the coach demanded, “What are the tears for?” Sam responded, “It doesn’t feel very good when you’re yelling at me about what a terrible player I am.” The coach became upset; telling Sam he was being disrespectful and that if he kept this up, he may not be on the team anymore. Sam went home after the game dejected. He talked through the situation with his parents and that night sent a text to his coaches apologizing for his behavior. The following day Sam and his parents drove 1-½ hours for the final two games of the tournament. His parents had prepared him for the fact that he would probably be benched for a few innings as a consequence for his transgression. As it turned out he was benched for both games that day, he never played an inning.
Luckily, Sam’s parents, without knowing it, practiced Ubuntu when they helped him deal with and try to understand that discipline. He took the high road and handled the situation maturely and moved on. Imagine a different scenario, one where the coach pulled Sam aside and talked to him about the consequences of not playing his position correctly, the importance of teamwork, and how everyone needs to do their part for the good of the whole team – basically talked to him using compassion and the concept of Ubuntu. That conversation would have been a more valuable learning experience for Sam and taught him an important lesson that he could carry into the future.
I’ve seen many situations like this one in schools where a potential conflict was eminent, but through the skillful handling of a counselor, or other adult on campus, the issue was resolved, and a positive learning experience occurred. We all need someone to practice Ubuntu with us when we find life challenging.
“A master tells you what he expects of you.
A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations.”