An anthropologist recently showed a competitive game to the children of an African tribe: He placed a basket of tempting fruits near a tree trunk and told them the first child to reach the tree would win the basket and all its delicious contents. Looking at one another, the children’s eyes widened and twinkled. Then, after the man gave the start signal, he watched in amazement as the eager children instantly grasped hands, walked to the tree and started gleefully sharing the prize together.
“Why did you give up the chance to enjoy the fruits all to yourself?!” the anthropologist asked the boy with the toothiest smile. All the children answered in astonishment: “Ubuntu! How could one of us be happy while the rest were miserable?!”
In their tribe, “ubuntu” literally means “I am because we are.”
These enlightened children remind me of a story I heard years ago when working for the Division of Developmental Disabilities (Department of Social and Health Services) in Olympia: It concerned a distance race at the Special Olympics one year…
Of course, everyone, especially the competitors, were pumped about the race. The wheelchair competition had just concluded; next up was the 1500-meter race. As it began, it was obvious how focused each runner was on performing his or her best…
The two fastest, both young men in their twenties, were neck and neck for most of the race. Then, without any warning during the last lap and with the finish line in sight, the runner a few strides ahead suddenly tripped, stumbled, and landed hard on the track. As he did so, the entire stadium seemed to stop breathing in response.
The runners coming up from behind immediately stopped. Instead of crossing the finish line, the other young man now in the lead also stopped. All on the track rushed over to their friend to help him up. Since he couldn’t put full weight on his bruised leg, his friends helped support him so he could stand upright. Then the crowd witnessed an amazing sight: The runners all linked arms and ambled across the finish line together smiling ear to ear. As they did, they all started to giggle and cheer, some leaping for joy. Their experience of shared victory clearly brought them deep pleasure and satisfaction.
As I reflect on the past few years of our national divisiveness and how that’s still manifested in current judgments and conflicts about choices during this pandemic, I’m humbled by these stories about African children and adults with developmental disabilities. In stark contrast to the prevalent competitive and narcissistic values of more “civilized” nations, their perspectives, it seems to me, reflect the secret to cultivating genuine happiness.
Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi mystic and poet, once wrote:
“At times we are hidden, at times revealed.
We are Muslims, Christians, Jews, of any race.
Until our hearts are shaped to hold all hearts,
We show these different faces to the world.”
The beautiful, inspiring teachers whom many label “primitive” and “disabled” have important lessons for us about the truth of interconnection and interdependence. It feels like their hearts have been “shaped to hold all hearts.” Consider trying this the next time you’d like to adjust your own heart:
Get comfortable in a quiet, private space and sit in a way that allows you to feel both relaxed and alert; straighten your spine comfortably so your breath can flow easily in and out of your body. Close your eyes and begin focusing on your natural breath. Consider paying special attention to where the respiration process feels most obvious in your body: as the air becomes breath through your nostrils… as the breath passes down into and filling your lungs… as your diaphragm drops and supports, as your belly expands and contracts… Just follow-- without judgment or resistance-- the natural rhythm of your breath.
Though you can’t feel it, the air you’re inhaling is rich in oxygen; the air you’re exhaling is equally rich in carbon dioxide… just as the green life on our planet—the trees, vines, grasses and shrubs, are breathing in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen back into the environment. As long as they’re functioning properly, your lungs, as well as our green world, are keeping each other alive and well. Try holding that truth in your awareness as you experience your breath for a few moments.
Now recognize that every being on this planet is contributing to this dance of interdependence and interconnection. None of us is separate--Your life is part of all life, and so is mine, no matter what our customs or intelligence, no matter how we vote or interpret science or respond to county recommendations. We are all one living, breathing organism. We need each other to exist and especially to thrive.
Finally, take a few minutes to ponder that the Latin phrase on the United States’ great seal: e pluribus unum, “out of many, one,” isn’t that different from the philosophy of that African tribe: ubuntu, “I am because we are.”
May I, we & all beings embody the truth of interconnection & interdependence more often.
Deb Langhans has worked in the wellness field as a coach/counselor, writer & speaker for over 25 years. She currently owns & operates Journeys to Healing on San Juan Island where she offers "wholistic" life coaching, mindfulness & grief recovery coaching, reflexology, Inner Journey Collage© & a developing line of products designed to encourage healthy habits.
Most services are available in Deb's studio or via phone or Zoom. For more information or scheduling, please go to www.journeystohealing.com (website). email@example.com (email), or 360.317.4526 (texts preferred).