I Am Because We Are
The concept of ubuntu and a beautiful dialogue between two best friends.
It was in an old age home that I experienced both, the most profound moments of learning and the saddest of tales.
While my memory of who took me there remains unclear, what’s etched in my mind are the two grandfathers who received me with open arms, treating me as if I were their own grandchild. The child-like excitement they had when they saw me, remains, to this day, a moment that comforts me in the most difficult of situations.
Walt was an American and Bill was from South Africa and by the looks of it, they were best friends. They bickered, but their camaraderie was evident in their playful banter.
I’ve always been naturally curious, and I couldn't help but wonder why they were in an old age home, so it was only obvious that I ask and this how the conversation unfolded after I posed the question.
Walt: Back in my younger days, life was a rat race, a constant pursuit of success and personal achievements. It was a cutthroat world where everyone fought like dogs to get ahead. It was survival of the fittest, and if you didn't eat, you were the dinner at the end of a long day. Let me tell you, my whole life...
Bill: Oh boy, here we go again with the sob story.
Walt: Talk when it’s your turn, will you?
Bill: I've heard it a million times. What more do you want from me?
Walt: The kid asked a question, and I'm sharing my story. So, listen up, kid. Throughout my entire life, I did as I was taught. From the very beginning, it was all about...
Bill (muttering): Me, me, me...
Walt: You got something to say, Bill?
Bill: Nah, go ahead, Walt. Tell the kid your tale.
Walt: It was all about "me, me, me" and no one else. People were obstacles in my path, stepping stones I had to overcome. You know what they call it nowadays? The individualistic mindset… self-interest reigns supreme. And let me tell you, I was neck-deep in it, like a cow in a cornfield. There was a certain thrill in living up to the world's expectations, ticking off every box they set for me. Kid, I lived the so-called American Dream. A beautiful house, a stunning wife, a bunch of kids—I had it all until I realized I didn’t.
Bill: Alright, tell him what happened next.
Walt: Well, here it is. It was still "me, me, me" all the way. Never gave the wife the time and attention she deserved, neglected my own kids in the process. I was consumed by of money and success, always looking forward and never looking back. But when I finally turned around, they were gone. The missus left for someone who could offer her what I couldn't—a connection, quality time, the works… And my kids? They're trapped in the same cycle I was once part of, chasing their own dreams and barely sparing a thought for the old man. Nobody's got time for me anymore.
Bill: You done? Shit. This guy cries a lot.
Walt: Where are the tears, Bill?
Bill: It’s all inside man. Your heart’s aching… it's time to pick up the pieces and move on.
Me: And what about you, Bill?
Bill: Me? Well, I can honestly say I've lived a good life. Ubuntu, ever heard of it?
Walt: Professor’s gonna teach now.
Bill: Our humanity is intertwined and we are all connected in a profound way. We were taught that our actions and choices impact not only ourselves but also the people around us. My old man once smacked me on the head because I stood watching an old lady carrying her groceries to the car and I didn’t rush to help her. “Damn it boy. Go, help her. By lifting others up, you, too, rise to greater heights,” he said. The way he talked sometimes, made me wanna call him a poet.
It was about putting ourselves in another person's shoes, understanding their joys and struggles. What do you kids call it nowadays? Empathy? That’s it. Empathy. It was always ‘I am because we are.’ What Walt did here was ‘We are because I am.’
Walt (nodding): That’s true.
Bill: We all come from one father, kid. We’re kids of kids of kids of kids of the same human being. We always forget that. Ubuntu is just a reminder of the original way of life—treat others like they’re your own and they’ll treat you the same. My kids… they too had a confused look when I told them about it. They thought you could never outgrow your potential if you were so busy taking care of others. So I brought out The Yanomami. You know anything about them?
Walt & Me: No…
Bill: The Yanomami are an indigenous tribe in the Amazon, Brazil. Among other things, they never eat their own catch, you know, the stuff they hunt for. They offer it to their neighbors and in turn, their neighbors offer their catch to them. You don’t wanna offer something bad to others, right? That makes you look bad. When it comes to feeding your own family, you make do. But the moment it’s about feeding another family, you put in your best, isn’t that right? What we’ve hidden over these years is that the altruism in us is far greater than we assume.
Me: But then… why are you here?
Bill: I had nowhere to go. My kids were driving down to their grandpa with my wife in the backseat and uh… a car crashed into them… no one survived.
Walt & Me: I’m sorry…
Bill: Nah, it’s been 20 years and each year, it’s been easier to talk about it. Aye, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t live a good life. Better than Walt here.
That’s about it, to be honest. The conversation continued and I might just share the rest of it some other day.
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