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Ubuntu: I am who I am because of others

Gustav Juul

Gustav Juul

Principal Partner

Adizes Institute

Rene Descartes is often called the first modern philosopher, and his famous saying, “I think, therefore I am,” laid the groundwork for how we conceptualize our sense of self. But what if there’s an entirely different way to think about personal identity, a non-Western philosophy that rejects this emphasis on individuality?

It’s a common perception that our thoughts make us who we are. The idea is even a seductive one. We might feel that we know people for what they write or say. It’s even a skill we practice in school, later in university and during our entire career. We train ourselves to communicate clearly through our words in the hope that someone else will understand our thoughts. Then, if thinking is how you can know and understand another person, then it makes sense that it also is how we can understand ourselves. Or might it be something else entirely, that makes us who we are?

Thoughts

When we look at what Rene Descartes wrote, it seems a bit to inclusive. Let’s say we take time studying a philosopher, digging deeper and deeper, and his thinking is likable, structured and logical, we are likely to start to have some of the same thoughts as he had when he was writing it. The difficulty with this is that we would not become more like the person we agree with just because we have had similar thoughts imprinted in our minds. Furthermore, if we could ask the person that wrote what we read he would probably say that he is much more than just a few pages. So for me, although knowing others people’s opinions and experiences, what makes us who we are, is not just what we think.

Genes

So if it isn’t our thoughts that makes us, “us” then could it be our genes? Surely, in our genetic code is relevant. “The apple never falls far from the tree”, they say. Aren’t we who we are because of our forefathers? We can’t escape the body we were born with. It is even said that our IQ is inherited to a large degree. Our genes are a constant. And yet it isn’t enough on its own to fully define us. When we think what makes us who we are, the body is part of the answer, surely.

Feelings

Could how we feel be another candidate that defines us as “us”? The things we feel and our emotions, can be very powerful and make us feel unique. When we are feeling something very strongly, love, pride, grief or sadness, it can blind us. We might even believe ourselves to be the only people in the world who ever felt what we are feeling. When we feel we are sharing that feeling with someone else, the bond becomes so strong that we somehow feel them part of “us”, that the connection defines us. Our spouse, our children and even some friends can make us feel that way, but again it is only a small part of who we are, we don’t become that other person.

Ubuntu

The reason I am writing this article is really that I earlier this week had during with a close friend that is very well read and I find to be something of a philosopher. The conversation turned to the concept of Ubuntu, an African Philosophy that resonated deeply with me during my college years, but that I later almost forgotten about. The idea is that “I am a person through other persons” or put in other words, I am who I am because of other people.

In retrospect, I can see ways that I have been helped my entire life. From my parents encouraging me to cultivate my interests from my childhood, and their sacrifices in raising and supporting me, to the teachers who believed in me and God that never seems to give up on me. In challenging times, I have been privileged to have had my prayers answered, to have had people who believed in me more than I may have believed in myself, and friends that saw things in me that I couldn’t see myself. The encouragement I have received has helped and continues to help me move forward.

On a larger scale and taking a look at history, we are who we are because of the sacrifices that other people have made for us. Take the sacrifices of the Allied Forces in WWII, women’s right to vote and hold a bank account, children’s right to decide who they will marry, the abolishment of the divine right to rule and slavery. I can see that without the many sacrifices of great people that have come before me and their willingness to suffer in order to create change for themselves and their children, we would live in a much different world. I am who I am because of other people.

Relational form of personhood

Ubuntu is a way of living that begins with the premise that “I am” only because “we are”. It is rooted in what I call a relational form of personhood, basically meaning that you are because of the others, in other words, as a human being, you—your humanity, your personhood—you are fostered in relation to other people.”
In practice, ubuntu means believing the common bonds within a group are more important than any individual arguments and divisions within it. “People will debate, people will disagree; it’s not like there are no tensions, it is about coming together and building a consensus around what affects the community. And once you have debated, then it is understood what is best for the community, and then you have to buy into that.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu drew on the concept of ubuntu when he led South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped South Africa reckon with its history of apartheid, stating: “We have the ability, as people, to dig into our human values, to go for the best of them, in order to bring about healing and to bridge the gap, … this idea also extends to our relationships with the non-human world of rivers, plants and animals.”.

Instead of emphasising the differences between people within South Africa, Tutu was famous for celebrating them. “We are different so that we can know our need of one another, for no one is ultimately self-sufficient,” Tutu wrote in No Future Without Forgiveness (1999). “The completely self-sufficient person would be sub-human.”

Adizes – Being different together


There is an ancient Middle Eastern symbol called “Hamsa” that holds a variety of meanings across many different cultures. Nevertheless, it is regarded in all faiths as a blessing and a protective talisman that brings good fortune, health and happiness. While Christianity began in 30 AD, and Islam in 610 AD, the Hamsa Hand is said to have been used by the people of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) in 800 BC, with recent archeological discoveries dating the use of the Hamsa Hand back to 1500 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.

Before the alphabet, words, sentences, languages, and religions, there were symbols. Owing to its origins in prehistory, the Hamsa Hand is a near-universal symbol across the world today, adopted by many major religions. Known as the Hand of Miriam in Judaism, the Hand of Mary in Christianity, the Hand of Fatima in Islam, and also present in the ancient religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

What I find so interesting about the design of the hand, is it’s design. The blessing is always represented by a hand with five fingers, five different fingers that stand together. What I also find interesting is how its opposite is depicted in these same cultures. A curse is exactly like a blessing, an open hand five fingers, five different fingers, but the big difference is that the fingers are not together! They are apart.

This is one of the great teachings of Dr. Ichak Adizes, founder of the Adizes Institute. When we work together just like a hand, respecting our differences and trusting that working together our mutual interests will be better served, is the foundation of a strong company.

Concusion

What makes us “us” is complex. The core of our personality is made up of a dynamic combination of things, always changing. These parts interact with the other parts of us to create the whole rich, complex person. The way our thoughts interact with our feelings, the way our feelings seem to be embedded in our bodies, and the way that our bodies seem to so often be the subject of our thoughts leads me to conclude that the only thing that makes sense is that we are an ongoing swirl of shifting parts; and yet, paradoxically, we remain the same person.

Because of those sacrifices and being helped and inspired by others who have impacted me positively throughout my life, I feel as if I have a debt that can only be repaid through using what I gain to help someone else as I have been helped. This “debt” is a good debt that has served and continues to serve as a form of inspiration for me when I feel as if I’m losing my way. It is my hope that my actions today will make life easier for future generations, as others have done for me through their own sacrifices.


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