'Ubuntu' underlies humanity, invites hope, happiness

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 3, 2006

Last week's column closed with a beaming six-year-old Icelandic girl's dream: "For everybody to be as happy as me."

But how to achieve such happiness?

Calgary coffee companion David Ambrose, an author who has thought long and hard about achieving happiness, responded to the Icelandic girl's quote by inviting me to join him at Cochrane Coffee Traders.

The girl's dream was still fresh in his mind. "It seemed so innocent," he said. "We toss around these kinds of words so much that they're almost clichés. But these words from the Icelandic girl were believable and unselfish. She wanted to give and not get."

David's originally from South Africa but moved to the Bow Valley just over a year ago. Having visited Cochrane only a few times so far, he's already concluded our little town must be one of the happiest places on earth.

We first met some months ago at a brunch meeting of the Independent Publishers Association of Canada. I was a speaker that morning and shared many wonderful insights you folks have brought to my attention over the years. Among those insights were your nominations for the most beautiful words in the English language. At the top of the list, you may recall, were "love," "peace," and "happiness."

These three words, David had commented at the time, are among the five concepts that form the foundation of his personal philosophy, the other two concepts being freedom and harmony.

Now over dark roast, he presented me with a copy of his just-published book, Your Life Manual: Practical Steps to Genuine Happiness.

These five concepts are what this book is all about, he told me, and like the Icelandic girl's dream, they are attainable not by getting, but by giving. "And there's nothing here that isn't thousands of years old," he said.

Drawing on the richness of his South African heritage, he went on to say how it took him years to realize "there was one African word that encompasses all five concepts: ubuntu."

Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) comes from the Xhosa and Zulu languages. There is no easy translation for it into English, he said, but the idea behind it is quite simple: "If I hurt you, I hurt myself; if I treat you well, I treat myself well."

David spends a chapter of his book on ubuntu. He pays special tribute to South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his description of the concept. He quotes from Tutu's book God Has A Dream, where Tutu says:

It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanise them.

As David and I reflected on Tutu's words, it was clear to me that ubuntu is the very opposite of the "poverty of spirit" about which coffee companions Kate Millar, Glen Eyford, Jerre Paquette and Kathy Yost have shared in our column over the past few weeks.

David agreed. "More and more, we are discovering that everyone and everything is interconnected," he said. "What heals you heals me."

In his book, David notes how "consideration of others used to play a much larger part in human interaction in earlier times. In recent times however, human interaction has been based on individual needs, achievements and desires."

Such individualism "has undoubtedly produced more wealth and power for some, but the cost to humanity, the poor, and to the planet has been huge."

But there's real hope, David says. "In recent years, there has been a growing interest in achieving more balance in life. The personal cost of the 'I-me-mine' syndrome is becoming more apparent in its effect on relationships, health, and general well being, not to mention poverty and the environment."

More ubuntu "will undoubtedly help to boost the process."

Your Life Manual: Practical Steps to Genuine Happiness is available locally at Bentleys Books and Westlands Bookstore. For more information, go to David's web site, www.YourLifeManual.com.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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