Life Lessons Inspired by Desmond Tutu
October 7, 2013
October 7, 2013
Note: This article was originally posted on the Ann Curry Reporting Our World page of NBC News.
Desmond Tutu celebrates his 82nd birthday on October 7th. I’m often asked what I’ve learned from this tireless peacemaker over three decades of knowing him. Alongside the wisdom that his life, work, teaching and spirit exude, five life lessons stand out which are transformative to the life of any person when they are allowed to be in dynamic inter-action.
Undergirding everything I’ve learned is Tutu’s witness to the philosophy of Ubuntu. It is an African wisdom tradition which says that a person is only a person in the context of others. Or to put it another way “I am only me because of you.” Everything that he says and does is a reflection of this fundamental belief in our need of one another combined with the teachings of his faith tradition about love, forgiveness and justice.
Trust. Tutu speaks often about his belief that we are made for goodness, in fact he’s even written a book about that. The belief is lived out through a striking willingness to trust others and a sense that when given the chance most people will ultimately make decisions that are good. It is a fundamental trust in the goodness of others.
Fifteen years ago I asked Tutu what made him offer to help me get out of South Africa in 1980—when he barely knew me—to avoid imprisonment for refusing to serve in the military. He thought for a moment then said, “I trusted you and wanted to help.” This combination of trust in the goodness of others and the willingness to act on that guiding belief create a dynamic, interactive way of life.
Playful Delight. Like his dear friend the Dalai Lama, Tutu has lived with the threat of violence against him and witnessed some of the most wrenching atrocities in the world. At a breakfast conversation I once hosted at which these two men spoke about compassion the audience was mesmerized as they teased and poked one another in the ribs while on stage and then collapsed into peals of laughter.
In the midst of responding to the needs of the world Tutu is grounded in a playful mischievous delight about life that begins with making fun of himself. It is a choice to walk lightly through the world while being fully present to life and others.
Honoring Your Word. In a world of often glib promises I’ve repeatedly witnessed Tutu honoring the commitments he speaks about. In the late nineteen eighties at the height of the anti-apartheid movement I asked him when he might speak in support of LGBT rights. “Once apartheid is overturned” he said without missing a beat. Today he calls the struggle for those rights the moral equivalent of ending apartheid.
There is a theme to how he honors his word. The magnificence and belovedness of every person are, I believe, what drive his insistent words about the need for girl’s education, women’s leadership, the Girl’s Not Brides campaign, the environment and LGBT rights. It is about living an integrated life that honors one another and especially those who are denied equality.
Steadfast Loyalty. The varied expressions of loyalty that I and so many others have experienced and received from Tutu is a reminder of the steadfastness of his friendship with others irrespective of their successes or failures. I’ve come to understand that this gift is only possible because of his profound self-awareness of human foibles and frailty and his heartfelt empathy with others.
Overjoyed by his willingness to write a generous introduction to my recent book, I was completely unprepared for his enthusiasm about travelling to Los Angeles to participate in a book launch event for the same book. It is a reflection of a steadfast loyalty that is another reminder of the Ubuntu wisdom tradition at work.
Grounding Practice. Tutu has engaged many and offended some by declaring that “God is not a Christian.” He understands his God to be more loving, expansive and generous than the wisdom of any one tradition points to. Yet it is his daily practice of celebrating Holy Communion every morning wherever he is that grounds his life and informs it.
I’ve learned that no matter your tradition the ability to engage in a regular practice of meditative or prayerful mindfulness each day is foundational to being an aware participant in your own life and the human family. The particulars of what kind of practice you choose are less important than the practice itself.
While I’m profoundly grateful for all that I have learned from Tutu over the decades I am not unique in learning such life lessons from him. These five things are accessible to anyone wanting to live an integrated mindful life in the spirit of Ubuntu. Above all, they reflect Tutu’s generosity of heart, mind and spirit. It is a generous way of living that beckons any of us.