I And We

The other day, someone posted the following to my neighborhood listserv:

“An anthropologist showed a game to the children of an African tribe… He placed a basket of delicious fruits near a tree trunk and told them: The first child to reach the tree will get the basket. When he gave them the start signal, he was surprised that they were walking together, holding hands until they reached the tree and shared the fruit! When he asked them why you did that when every one of you could get the basket only for him! They answered with astonishment: Ubuntu. ‘That is, how can one of us be happy while the rest are miserable?’ Ubuntu in their civilization means: (I am because we are). That tribe knows the secret of happiness that has been lost in all societies that transcend them and which consider themselves civilized societies.”

“I am because we are.” When you think about it, that’s pretty profound. In western cultures, it might be considered a way of understanding long-term self-interest.

The post especially resonated with me because I get so annoyed by all the evidence of very short-term self-interest displayed by people who clearly don’t understand how much they depend upon what I like to call “social infrastructure.”

I still recall a discussion with one of those “self-made”businessmen in which he insisted that anyone willing to work hard could succeed, that what I identified as barriers were really just excuses for sloth. I responded that, if that were the case, there evidently were no “hard workers” in the slums of India or Bangladesh. Surely, the rather obvious lack of social and physical infrastructure wasn’t their problem…

I don’t know what keeps so many people from understanding the various ways that social systems operate to enable or deter individual prospects. That “self-made” man was tall, White, college educated, with parents who had also been college educated (and at a very selective college). I assume his social circle simply didn’t include people without the means to access higher education, or people from “bad” neighborhoods or marginalized groups, and he obviously lacked the imagination and/or empathy needed to understand the realities of people unlike himself.

Are there lazy people in every society? Sure. Are there people who lack the skills and/or ambition to succeed (however one defines success)? Of course. In a functional society, the object should be to provide a floor, a starting-line beyond which individuals can go as fast and far as their talents take them. Equality of opportunity–not equality of result– is the goal, but equality of opportunity requires a reasonably level starting-place and an absence of invidious discrimination.

Think of life as a footrace.

If I’m running a race and several of the people competing with me are required to carry ten-pound sandbags on the run, I have an unfair advantage over them. If none of us are made to tote those sandbags, but contestants of color, or those with different sexual orientations or religions are only allowed to start the race five minutes after the rest of us, most of them will be unable to make up the difference.

Removing those impediments is no guarantee that everyone running will get to the finish line at the same time–or at all. But they’ll participate in a race and society that gives its citizens an equal opportunity to go as far as their individual gifts and hard work will take them.

And that takes us back to the insight captured by the post to the listserv: individuals do better, and are demonstrably happier, in a supportive society that looks out for everyone. In the long term, a fair and humane society is in our individual self-interest.

Ultimately, ubuntu is wisdom. Good people really cannot be happy in a society where substantial numbers of other people are miserable.

 

30 thoughts on “I And We

  1. Very insightful and profound. Unfortunately we have decided to live in a competitive world where winning and loosing marks you as successful or failures. Disconnected from each other and the social construct that has sustained mankind from our dawning on earth. The last year hopefully has taught us all a lesson about the human need for a social fabric and how we do need and must rely on each other, but I’m not sure everyone was able to understand what the message was or how it applies to them, the mask wearing demonstrated that clearly.

  2. Ubuntu – my new mantra. Nice explication of egalitarianism, as I understand it, vs. “we’re all equal.” Thomas Jefferson had no illusions that everybody was as smart or talented as he was, and of course he didn’t walk the walk, given that he kept slaves. But the same starting line, without sandbags: that’s a goal worth working toward.

  3. The I versus We comparison shows up in the emphasis in our society of freedom over responsibility.

  4. I would add that, if only one person gets the fruit, much of the fruit is liable to rot before it can be eaten.

  5. If happiness is the goal, we have the wrong economic system as a society. Or, maybe we don’t have the correct regulation of the economic system since it has infiltrated all levels of society, including our educational system.

    When I look at the Happiness Index, once again, the Scandinavian countries populate the top ten.

    Competition is inherent in capitalism, and so is mistrust. Both of which may appeal to our individual selfish nature but do not work for our social nature. As a scientist, Albert Einstein was able to point this out with relative ease, and it’s why he called capitalism and communism “Evil.”

    It’s why Ayn Rand was so popular among the Libertarian leaders in Congress…she resented, even despised the collective. It was all about self. Whereas, communism is all about the collective.

    There is a middle ground that accomplished both but requires social planning where we all participate. No reason to reinvent the wheel since our brothers and sisters have the solution.

    An economic system that exploits workers and the planet for profit will never produce a high degree of happiness for society.

  6. Lovely thoughts today, Sheila. Ubuntu. If only….

    Great point, Peggy Hannon, and in only one sentence. Brief and effective. Thanks!

  7. Ubuntu = a “religion”, beliefs about something greater than me, some kind of “community” of humanity.

    Check the stats, fewer and fewer people, especially the young, identify with a religion, much less attend as part of a community. How do we get “we” back?

    We older folks may remember the episode of Twilight Zone where a group of scientists were so concerned about the cold war mentality that they created a fake invasion from outer space to unify the world…We have such an existential threat now, also human-made. Doesn’t seem to matter…

    As some other folks write almost weekly…”glad I won’t be around…”

  8. Professor,
    A well-written and simply stated piece today. Progressives could bolster their position on this issue ten-fold, however, if they would drop the term “income inequality,” (a concept expressed in negative form) in favor of wage equity or something similar. This positive phrase connotes the idea of benefitting those who work (a nearly universal American value) and promotes the idea of a fair paycheck for workers who actually produce goods and provide essential services for us all, thereby investing their own sweat equity into their employers’ enterprises. Going to bat for billionaire owners, overpriced executives and tax-avoiding mega-corporations is a losing issue for any party, and progressives must constantly point this out to the electorate and put their opposition on the spot by pointing out how current tax and labor policies do just that. Policy that truly benefits mom-n-pop businesses, workers, mainstreet, and start-ups, while providing supports needed to help working parents get and most importantly, KEEP their jobs will reduce misery and systemic “handicaps,” increase upward mobility, and if touted effectively, win votes.

  9. i have a solitary lifestyle, living on the road driving a truck.though married to a very cool woman who relates as not only a wife,but a friend. our lifestyle is work and keep in touch and enjoy our rewards by the few friends we have. from being raised in a less than tranquil life,in inner city,ive walked the street where the less fortunate still exist. ive met few lazies,compared to, the ones who really try,and never get above the poverty level. recognized by by own past, i still have a sense to handout the few bucks in my pocket to anyone,who hits my radar. not everyday,not weekly,just then and few. i walk away with little doubt,i helped someone,at that moment. those streets are there because someone doesn’t care and has the society today to keep their hand indirectly in their pockets. anyone who walked away from the shadow of a past poverty life,who denies others a hand, obviously has been pulled down to a even lower level..

  10. It would be interesting to know what the Ubuntu acknowledge as a “successful” person.

  11. If you enjoyed today’s essay, as I certainly did, you might consider reading one of David Sloan Wilson’s works. He is a scholar in the field of evolutionary biology but his research and writing has taken him down the path of expanding evolution to the social sciences. He bases this on the view that communities, societies and the human race at large are themselves organisms capable of evolutionary development and that altruism is a far stronger evolutionary force in the development of human behavior and societal norms than the qualities of the “lone hunter” individual idolized by such images as the American Western Cowboy and heavily promoted in US culture forever, but especially the last 40 years.

    One of today’s Western Cowboys is Elon Musk of Tesla – whose three main businesses – cars, solar and space travel – have been financed with nearly $500 Billion in federally-guaranteed loans. Go figure.

    One of Wilson’s books that I am now reading is “Atlas Hugged”, which was written as a rebuttal to the book by Ayn Rand called “Atlas Shrugged” which outlines, in painful detail, the elements of Rand’s overarching philosophy known as “Objectivism”. Wilson’s book embraces the concepts he promotes in his non-fiction works. You can learn more about this book and download it for a donation of your choice at: https://atlashugged.world/

    Enjoy.

  12. As the time of reckoning approaches, the greed of the human species especially the portion of that species who are supposed to be enlightened and highly educated, fiddle waiting for the end!

    What is the saying? Those who die with the most toys, Wins!

    You can’t take it with you, but that doesn’t seem to matter much. The human condition is flawed.

    Romans 2:13-15 reads; ” For the hearers of law are not the ones righteous before God, but the doers of law will be declared righteous. For when people of the nations, who do not have law, do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law, are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them, and by their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.”

    So, in this country, with Christianity being the dominant religion still, the apostle Paul mentioned the law as being integrated in and written on a person’s heart. Conscience, that nagging feeling that whatever you are doing is not appropriate, or, the feeling that congratulates you for doing good!

    The apostle Paul wrote to the congregation in Galatia, these very words; Galatians 5:16:21 which reads, “But I say, Keep walking by spirit and you will carry out no fleshly desire at all. For the flesh is against the spirit in its desire, and the spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you do not do the very things you want to do. Furthermore, if you are being led by spirit, you are not under law. Now the works of the flesh are plainly seen, and they are sexual immorality, uncleanness, brazen conduct, idolatry, spiritism, hostility, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, sects, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and things like these. I am forewarning you about these things, the same way I already warned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

    Then the apostle Paul ends his letter with this at Galatians 5:22-16 which reads; “On the other hand, the fruitage of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Moreover, those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed to the torture stake the flesh together with its passions and desires. If we are living by spirit, let us also go on walking orderly by spirit. Let us not become egotistical, stirring up competition with one another, envying one another.”

    This is what the conscience dictates! And, it doesn’t condone living in an alternate reality in an attempt to override one’s conscience and then claim permission to be evil to one’s neighbor.

    The apostle Paul also stressed this very thing to the Christian congregation in Ephesus in his letter to those Ephesians, Ephesians 5:8, 9.

    The more advanced as society becomes, the more it disregards conscience, because intellectually, many feel that these sort of things written in this comment are archaic and have no truth factor in them. Whereas if everyone abided by these things as the Ubuntu children, this world would be a much better place. But the so-called enlightened ones will always throw out the baby with the bathwater!

  13. Nguni Bantu is the tribe to which, apparently, these children belonged. “Ubuntu” is a marvelous concept, and I, as well, I would guess, many others here, if not all, agree with Sheila that it is sad that our culture has turned its back on such a concept.
    Lester, I do not recall seeing that particular episode, but have long thought that if we were to detect another cosmic civilization, it might bring us together to face what we would almost certainly perceive as an enemy.

  14. Todd,

    Perfect summation. You leave little else to discuss. But a question does arise: How do people in this country who have been inculcated with selfish white privilege make the leap to the idealistic egalitarianism you suggest? Is there enough time to make the move in that direction before we destroy ourselves?

  15. Sheila,
    As usual, a fine column and some excellent comments, but I must be going blind, I couldn’t find a way to post on facebook. I looked several times. It would be a shame not to share this one.
    Thanks.

  16. I’ve come across a few studies about altruistic toddlers, this being one of them:

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-babies-born-good-165443013/

    The theory is that we are born with natural tendencies to help and that we look with favor on the helpers and avoid the hinderers. If you look to the Bible for answers to these sorts of things then you might see this same concept in the readings from the prophet Jeremiah, in which God says He will write His laws into the hearts of His people. A reference to our conscience? Perhaps, but that also argues against prophets and organized religion because God has already given us everything we need to lead a good life.

    Whether or not we have God-given or natural inclinations toward good, the question remains as to how we get diverted from the path we are naturally set on. Our society in particular seems to promote competition and individual effort as virtues, even though widespread Christian teachings do not. And somehow we have reconciled these polar opposite views into an American set of ideals with the conclusion that without competition, even cutthroat competition, we are doomed to mediocrity. Winning is a take all concept in which there must always be only one winner and multiple losers.

  17. Thank you Shiela for this wonderfully positive concept of ubuntu. It is a profound rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s assertion that selfishness is the highest virtue as is the Maori concept that Lester mentioned. It supports the idea of UBI.

    It’s a short jump from the theological concept of predestination to saying that people are poor because of predestination and/or because they are lazy or stupid. This is why we UU’s find predestination such an appalling concept.

    Buddhist teachers also focus on our interdependence on one another and on the interdependent web of life. i.e. We would not exist without the sun and the trees. And Karen Armstrong and other theologians have stated that compassion is the central virtue. She argues that without compassion the human race will easily self-destruct.

    Sharing our wealth enhances our mental health and enhances meaning and purpose in our lives. I wonder, Shiela, if your “self-made” businessman has the capacity to laugh at himself. If he is not able to do so, that’s a symptom of narcissism. If you ask me he’s extremely ungrateful ,and his life has been too sheltered. If he’s lucky, he will have the Buddha’s original awakening when he left his father’s sheltered fortress and witnessed suffering in the world. I wish we could make him sit and listen to people who are working hard and yet unable to lift themselves out of poverty. I think he needs divine intervention to help him become more fully human.

    Peggy, lots of our food in the supply chain does go rotten instead of being distributed to the poor and homeless.

    We Americans tend to hoard which means we don’t really believe in what Jesus taught about the lillies of the field and the birds of the air. We don’t take just enough for today. George Carlin’s comedic monologue on “Stuff” confronts our hoarding.

    That being said, I would ask my fellow Americans, “How many of you are sharing your stimulus checks with food banks, homeless shelters, or prison ministries?” I am giving to a food shelter 10 minutes from my home. I am trying to walk my talk.

  18. Thank you Shiela for this wonderfully positive concept of ubuntu. It is a profound rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s assertion that selfishness is the highest virtue as is the Maori concept that Lester mentioned. It supports the idea of UBI.

    I
    Buddhist teachers also focus on our interdependence on one another and on the interdependent web of life. i.e. We would not exist without the sun and the trees. And Karen Armstrong and other theologians have stated that compassion is the central virtue. She argues that without compassion the human race will easily self-destruct.

    Sharing our wealth enhances our mental health and enhances meaning and purpose in our lives. I wonder, Shiela, if your “self-made” businessman has the capacity to laugh at himself. If he is not able to do so, that’s a symptom of narcissism. If you ask me he’s extremely ungrateful ,and his life has been too sheltered. If he’s lucky, he will have the Buddha’s original awakening when he left his father’s sheltered fortress and witnessed suffering in the world. I wish we could make him sit and listen to people who are working hard and yet unable to lift themselves out of poverty. I think he needs divine intervention to help him become more fully human.

    Peggy, lots of our food in the supply chain does go rotten instead of being distributed to the poor and homeless.

    We Americans tend to hoard which means we don’t really believe in what Jesus taught about the lillies of the field and the birds of the air. We don’t take just enough for today. George Carlin’s comedic monologue on “Stuff” confronts our hoarding.

    That being said, I would ask my fellow Americans, “How many of you are sharing your stimulus checks with food banks, homeless shelters, or prison ministries?” I am giving to a food shelter 10 minutes from my home. I am trying to walk my talk.

  19. Vernon asks, “How do people in this country who have been inculcated with selfish white privilege make the leap to the idealistic egalitarianism you suggest? Is there enough time to make the move in that direction before we destroy ourselves?”

    This is the ultimate question, and looking at US leaders today, I’d say without a revolution on a global scale, we will see a nuclear war within the decade. The Quad powers in the South Pacific are saying that war with China is “imminent.” Australia, with the consult of RAND, will begin construction of their own missile system aimed at China.

    Ukraine, as motivated by the US through NATO, wants to take back Crimea from Russia. There are videos of Russian tanks scurrying to Crimea as we speak.

    This is insanity completely denying the global Ubuntu concept. Our collective ego (I) in the US will blow up the planet and its people for money and power.

  20. Most indigenous tribes have the Ubuntu concept.

    They fought as a unit against the white Invaders who felt a superior calling. As Lester brought out, the new zealand/miore have that empathy and compassion for their fellow man, just as the native Americans fought against the spread of covid by the entitled Sturgis bikers. Of course those native dakotans were demonized by the entitled Sturgis bikers who started a super spreader event and decimated those tribes.

    It really does amaze me that there are ways of living that have existed for millennia, and still, individuals will turn their back on it for hypocritical reasons.

    Scientists will take something that’s been existent in human literature for thousands of years and claim it as their own Discovery! And somehow that’s supposed to give it more credence? That’s part of the problem.

  21. Capitalism as currently practiced contains the seeds of its own destruction per Marx, but such observation falls short of an explanation of the externalities imposed upon the less fortunate by such an ism. Perhaps competition should be limited to footraces rather than as a cover for ruthless opportunism and moneymaking at the expense of “losers.” Perhaps Gandhis and M.L. Kings should be lionized while the exploits of CEOs are barely mentioned in the WSJ. Perhaps the “losers” who provide essential services should be paid their fair share of the fruits of our economy. Perhaps. The list is long.

    No ism exists that does not have a moral base, real or pretended, even our current winner take all system. Thus the rich and corporate class can point out that essential workers are fairly compensated since they are by and large lazy, dependent on government largesse, did not bother to educate themselves etc., and capitalism is not at fault, i. e., they brought it upon themselves. This pretense ignores that victims of this ism as currently practiced did not start from third base but rather at the plate with a count of two strikes and no balls, and that not everyone lives in the Hamptons with the hard choice of which yacht to take out bluefishing this afternoon.

    The Africans who were the subject of the anthropologist’s experiment all started from home plate and were innately socialist from experience. Whether government can even our playing field via “Equal Opportunity” programs is fiercely contested by “moralist” capitalists (a contradiction in terms), so where are we today? Perhaps we can learn something from the Africans that will lead to our adoption of a less predatory system; perhaps not. Time will tell.

  22. Ubuntu is not kumbaya.

    ‘I am because we are” is hard-nosed realism in the world that we have created by our population, lifestyle and technology, all of which are trending more so.

    Conservatism is not wrong-headed but simply obsolete. It was at one time a necessary trait when the nearest neighbor was a trip away. That’s simply no longer the case for the vast majority of us. We have created a world in which the modern equivalent of ubuntu, liberalism, is a necessary ingredient in survival. The US culture is coming around to that realization but slowly and chaotically and painfully, but come to it we must in order to exist as part of the future.

    The next lesson is to figure out what the optimum mix of rights and responsibilities will be in what’s coming.

  23. Human history is chock full of violence. Early history exalts the conquering leader and his people taking cities and land from others. There never was any “nobility” as a whole in human history, tribe fought tribe,etc., all the way up to the modern nation state for control of valuable resources.

    We are not very good at sharing. Our world wide Oligopoly has devised various means to shelter their wealth and horde it.

    Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday expressed support for a minimum tax rate, providing the vital backing of the U.S. government.

    Yellen, in a speech, said a minimum global tax rate would stop what she described as a “30-year race to the bottom” that has allowed big corporations to avoid contributing fully to vital national needs.

    The support for a global tax rate is a new plank in the Biden administration’s tougher approach to corporate taxes.

    It’s an idea that has been debated widely across global capitals: impose the same minimum corporate tax rate all over the world to prevent companies from shopping around for the country that can offer the smallest tax bill.

    In the United States, business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have already said they oppose the Biden administration’s plan to raise corporate taxes to fund infrastructure, even if they applaud increased investment in areas like roads, ports and broadband. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/05/984461923/janet-yellen-proposes-bold-idea-the-same-minimum-corporate-tax-around-the-world

    This approach by the Chamber of Commerce is typical they want a first class infrastructure but do not want to pay for it.

  24. Sheila, your race analogy doesn’t go far enough. The problem is that there are numerous obstacles and detrimental factors that hinder the non-white, non-male racer. They occur continually and often imperceptibly. This is why I have no problem with “affirmative action” programs at all. Giving those racers a few small but key boosts can help make the race more fair in the long run. And as important, it normalises the situations it affects. (My kids don’t find it odd at all that their skin colour, sexual orientation, gender identity and language is just one of many in their schools and lives. And this is as it should be, given the variety of people on this planet.) Equal opportunity is the long-term goal, but we are no where near that situation. It’s not going to happen by itself, or at least it would take so much longer if left to happen on its own. Affirmative action programs help to push us towards it a little more quickly.

  25. Terry Flanagan,

    Awesome comment today!

    I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, individuals who have manipulated and abused religious teachings over the years have completely pissed off those other folks who find a lot of flaws in and around religious teachings including scripture to go along with it.

    Absolutely Jeremiah stated those very things, and Christs apostles also restated Jeremiah’s prophetic revelations. I think we have to have a better understanding of what has been taught in the past and what is already on the books so to speak. In Psalms David says that there is nothing new under the Sun so these things that we’re experiencing have happened continuously throughout history. And, the outcome is always the same, it turns out poorly.

  26. Thank you for another excellent post, Sheila.

    I am reminded, among other things, of studying Aikido, where cooperation with your partner was the goal, and there were no “contests”.

    I also compare the original Japanese show “Ninja Warrior” where individuals competed against a crazy obstacle course, and theoretically, there could be multiple winners — who always thanked their fans.

    Then there is “American Ninja Warrior” where only one can win – and the winner let’s out a primal scream because they are the best.

    We is definitely a superior pronoun to I (unless it is an ‘imperial we’ — 8)>)

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