Desmond Tutu and the Poverty Of The Self-Made Man. An Appreciation and a Brief Parable.

Bishop Desmond Tutu passed away a few days ago and the tributes continue to pour in.  It was through Tutu’s writing and speeches that I learned about the concept of Ubuntu, an approach to life that says that my humanity is inextricably bound up in yours, that a person is a person through other persons.  I’ve also heard it expressed as “I am who I am because of who we all are together.”  A dozen words that gets straight to the heart of the truth of our interdependence.

I can’t help but think of Tutu’s voice, which could convey in the span a minute, a fierce challenging urgency, and an infectious impish sense of humor.

I remember one speech in particular.  He was explaining Ubuntu and contrasting it with the myth of the so called self-made man.

(Paraphrasing here)

When I hear a man tell me that he is totally independent,  that his achievements are a result of his efforts and his alone, I think,, “Oh how  sad that must be.  This man is so terribly poor to not need anyone at all.”

So  with gratidude to the growers, the pickers, the warehouse workers, the shippers, the truckers, the highway construction workers, the people who made the tires for those trucks, the buyers, the retailers (obviously this is to name only a fraction) … to the people who made it possible for me to drink this cup of coffee as I write this, thank you.

And with gratitude to the generations of storytellers who stand behind me, and brought their versions forward… a brief story about a self made flea…

A story is told of Namous, the vain glorious flea who found himself one day at the edge of a gorge spanned by a rather flimsy rope bridge.  He was contemplating how many long hops it might take him to make the crossing, when an elephant, traveling in the same direction, happened by, examined the structure and relying on long memory and experience, determined that it would just hold its weight. As he took his first step, Namous, always the opportunist, jumped in the elephants ear and made himself as comfortable as he could be. Amplified perhaps by the acoustical  architecture of the pachyderm’s ear, Namous could hear what sounded like the thunderous rumble of the bridge creaking.  The crossing proved successful, and after a time Namous took leave of his host, and made it to his evening’s lodging at the Flea Bag Inn.  Invigorated by his perilous journey, and perhaps inflated by the elixir of the elephants blood, which he had not lost the opportunity to sample, Namous headed to the bar and related the day adventures, leaving his drinking companions to contemplate his exploits.  “How great is Namous,” he declared.  “Remember Namous.  The flea that shook a bridge.”

To my readers. Thank YOU! I am who I am because of who we all are together.


One comment

  1. Another bridge story when one human needs another
    Once upon a time this young American (I think, or Englishman) was traveling in Asia, taking groups of tourists high into the mountains of Nepal. He was equipped with the latest trekking gear, business cards, guide books, and a spirituality appropriate to such heights.

    This time, however, he was alone, climbing he rocky outcrops, carrying his pack. Suddenly he faced a bridge. It was not just any bridge. In fact, it wasn’t much of a bridge at all. It was broken in many places, hanging precariously over fast mountain streams far below. When he saw it, he lost his nerve. His heart grew faint and an unease spread throughout his body and soul as his mind retreated from the crossing. He was good at mountain climbing and hiking, but suddenly he just couldn’t do it. Time to turn around and go home.

    As he turned, he saw approaching him on the path a small, bent-over woman. She was very old and she carried an enormous dung basket. Completely unaware of him, she scrutinized the ground for any bit of yak dung, twig, or scrap that was burnable. She was treasure hunting and what she was looking for was invaluable. When she came within a few feet of him she spied his big feet—a Westerner’s feet—and she looked up, startled. She straightened a bit, gazed up at him, and smiled. Her face was wrinkled and weather-buffeted, toothy and childlike. She greeted him with the customary word, Namaste” (loosely, “I greet the God in you”). It sounded like a song, with the last syllable held. And she bowed, with her hands raised in blessing! He bowed as well, bringing his hands together and responding in the same manner. As his head came p, she was past him and she sprang across the rickety bridge, in a dance step or two, graceful and free. She turned and looked at him mischievously, laughing without a sound. Then she spun around and disappeared with another few steps, dropping down to another ledge of the cliff’s outcrop.

    He stood there, stunned, and then he sprang into motion and bounded across the swaying bridge as well, landing firmly on the Himalayan ground, bound for a new life, catapulted there by a total stranger’s greeting, face, and action. She had invited him to dance, and he, entranced, had followed along behind her.

    The memory has remained riveted within his mind and soul. Years later he writes about that encounter as a milestone, a turning point, a decision that set in motion much that followed.

    From Megan McKenna’s “Blessings and Woes” which she took from p 50-51 The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul at Work Paperback – September 28, 2005 by David Whyte

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