Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Practice Ubuntu

A couple of days ago my daughter, who has moved to a different dorm, called to say that she and her roommate had been awakened by the silence after a loud party across the hall, only to hear two people standing outside their door looking at their sign and saying in a rather contemptuous tone of voice, "Who ARE this Alison and Kaitlyn, ANYWAY?"

She was feeling hurt and alienated by their tone of voice, and when I mentioned this to my husband on our nightly walk, he said, "People are so tribal."

It was an aha moment for me -- which I immediately went back and communicated to our daughter: she is, after all, an anthropology major. Why not (I suggested) see her move as an opportunity for an experiment? Assess the ways the new tribe differs from the old, find a way to bridge the gap.

And then, last night, a friend introduced me to Ubuntu, the theme for this year's General Convention in the Episcopal Church. Ubuntu, according to the description she found on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow's website (on which Cynthia Bourgeault occasionally writes columns! I love it!), Ubuntu is an African term that means what makes us human is the humanity we show each other. It’s a worldview that sees humanity as a web of family rather than a mass of individuals. When you relate in this way, you feel connected, energized and have a sense of abundance.

Ubuntu, then, is a way of taking that sense of connection and caring we feel within whatever tribes we share and extending it to include those beyond our tribal borders, so that those borders disappear. It's the work Obama was doing in his speech last night, building unity between the parties, building a sense of oneness and pride in America, and extending the concern we feel for one another to reach out across our borders to the world beyond: the ultimate in unitive thinking.

And it's work we need to do across family boundaries, neighborhood boundaries, ecumenical boundaries -- anywhere we feel a sense of separation, and anywhere that sense of separation contributes to a sense of entitlement. If, as Freeman says in Jesus the Teacher Within, sin is a consequence of separation, and at the same time the punishment for sin lies in that same sense of separation, then the heart of the life we are called to live is to reach out across the separation, to tear down that which separates us and work for inclusion.

So how would this translate into dorm life? Freeman says the duality of action and reaction is transcended in God, and I think it's that duality that fuels tribal behavior. If you think of that contemptuous remark (which may not actually have been contemptuous at all, but merely curious) as a ball thrown at my daughter's door, then if she stays in reactive mode, stiff, the ball will bounce back and hit the two questioners. But if she softens, relaxes, the ball will just drop to the ground, neither party will be injured, and it will become just a moment to be observed.

Perhaps that softening, the willingness to let it go, is the first step in Ubuntu. Because we can certainly THINK all the world is family, and pay lip-service to that concept. But until we act upon it, both in reaching out and accepting, it will become just another noble concept, gradually emptying of meaning even as it is popularized.


Anonymous said...

My morning prayer reading talked about family and community...I just wish that we could exclude the mean people (I, obviously, still have a ways to go to reach adulthood).

What you said about softening yourself really spoke to me. I think that's what I have been doing, but I just didn't have a name for it or a true understanding of it. Thank you.

Patricia said...

I needed to catch up on all your posts tonight. Thanks for reminding me it is Lent. Ash Wed is one of my favorite liturgies.
Ubuntu- did you know that Virginia Davison (Grace) was the runner up in the General Convention contest for an artistic representation of Ubuntu? I have Michael Battle's book on it if you wish to read more. I'd love to have coffee soon. I'll email some times.
Finally, my cousin Susan Pascal is in town tomorrow playing a concert at the Commons at 4 pm. She plays the vibes with her quartet- bienvenue!