Tag Archives: individuals

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.