Ubuntu: The Key to Purposeful Living

A practical look at this life-changing philosophy

Nathan Burriston
Jul 8, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

don’t realize how connected we are.

If we did, the majority of the world’s problems would disappear. War, oppression, racism, inequality, corruption all have strong ties to disunity and indifference.

Ubuntu is a beautiful philosophy from the Nguni people of Southern Africa, translated as I am because we are.

At its core, it’s a belief that we all share a universal bond that connects us to each other. Founded on respect, it asks us to look outward and acknowledge the humanity in others.

There are many airy-fairy ideas out there about being nice to each other, but Ubuntu is one that I find both practical and necessary if we are to live a life of impact and purpose.

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Why you should care about others

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Society sets us up to compete with one another in a race to the top. There’s this idea of scarcity, that the world has limited wealth, success, and resources, and we all have to battle it out for a piece of the pie.

Yet we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the billions of people who have and continue to contribute to the world.

Ubuntu asks that we instead look at the value others have brought us. Your Uber driver, the cashier, and that random dude that held the door for you have all, in some way, added value to your life. Whether it’s a person’s job or an act of kindness, your life is made up of thousands of moments and interactions where someone else has done something to benefit you, usually without you even realizing it.

You are because others are.

You have learned everything you know through guidance from others. The language you speak, your education, your entire existence, is based on what your fellow humans have given you.

Looking outward in a positive way helps you see how connected we all are and makes you appreciate this bond you have with the world.

I have a new-found appreciation for everyone I meet. I now try to be more conscious of how everyone adds value to my life and this helps me feel more grateful and connected to those around me.

Why perspective is important

How extraordinary is it, that human beings are able to see things from someone else’s perspective?

Think about it. Life happens in your mind. Everything that goes on in your entire life takes place in your head. So how crazy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s mind and see things through their eyes?

Perspective allows you to expand your own world view. You are able to feel someone else’s pain without having to live it yourself. You can empathize with what others go through and deeply understand why they do what they do.

To live a meaningful life, Ubuntu requires us to understand and appreciate each other. And this is only possible through perspective.

When we judge others, we fail to understand them.

“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” — African proverb

Everyone is born with a pure heart and the potential to bring light to the world. Through their environment and experiences they are shaped into the person they become. We don’t know the struggles others face. We don’t know what they’ve been through.

We need to see the humanity in others and forgive them. If someone hurts you, the last thing you want to do is remind yourself that they are human too. But doing so helps you recognize their actions are shaped by their circumstances.

Doing bad things will never be ok. But judgment, resentment, envy, and hatred won’t help the world. Ubuntu has shown me that the only way forward is through forgiveness, understanding, education, and unity.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Diversity

It’s incredible how every single person in existence is unique.

Ubuntu reminds us that diversity is one of the most beautiful things in life and is a strength we should embrace, not fear.

It’s natural to connect with others who share the same culture, values, and interests. But our differences are what truly make us so powerful.

We are all unique and therefore bring something different to the table. The diversity of our characters, talents, and experiences are what really make our lives so rich. A garden with only one type of flower would be dull.

Ubuntu also reminds us of our equality. We may be born in different circumstances and have different backgrounds, but we can all help and learn from each other. Using each other’s strengths means we can help one another overcome blind spots, allowing us to grow and move forward together.

What I’m learning from this is to be humble enough to learn, and patient, and respectful enough to see what others are offering. Ubuntu is teaching me not to judge myself or others, to embrace my life fully; the good and bad, the past and present.

Some simple steps to take

Philosophies are great to admire but can be difficult to turn into action. Here are a few immediate steps I’m trying that you can take too.

  1. Look others in the eye — at the cashier, as you pass the security guard, whenever you interact with anyone, look them in the eye. Our eyes are the windows to our souls and reminders of our humanity.
  2. Be present when talking to others — when you truly listen to someone, you hear their heart and inner voice. Listening is one of the greatest forms of respect we can pay to someone else and opens us up to new ideas and deeper understanding.
  3. Always find the good — try to look for the good in others. There is always something positive in a person. Focus on that.
  4. Add value, no matter how small — even if it’s in the form of a smile, doing something nice for someone else is what we live for. Be kind, be generous, do what you can to help others.

We are all deeply interconnected. It’s important to remember our oneness.

It’s impossible to mistreat others if we understand their value. When we respect and appreciate everyone, we fill our lives with meaning and engage with our deepest humanity.

If we treat the world as one human body, our collective action, perspective, mindset, and purpose will all be very different.

Ubuntu reminds me that we are all on this exciting, terrifying adventure of life together. It’s a blessing to be alive and to share the world with others. I may have a different individual journey but my path is deeply interconnected with everyone else’s.

I am because We are.

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