Reviews Soul

Desmond Tutu: No Person is an Island

Written by Sven Eberlein
Archbishop Desmond Tutu & The Rev. Mpho Tutu
In conversation with Roy Eisenhardt
Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | Davies Symphony Hall, SF

I had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, The Rev. Mpho Tutu, talking about their new book, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, last night as part of the City Arts & Lectures series.

The book is based on the concept of Ubuntu, the idea that we all need each other and can’t be human in isolation. It seems pretty obvious, but amazingly enough, we still tend to forget about it in our frantic quest for freedom and independence. Some of the descriptions of Ubuntu the Archbishop has written about:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu, Vancouver 2004, photo by Carey Linde, Creative Commons

What makes Desmond Tutu such a powerful messenger of Ubuntu is not only the huge role he played in establishing The Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, but his huge sense of humor and joy of life that enables him to navigate even the most rugged and sensitive waters of human history and consciousness with grace, dignity, and transcendence. Now 78, he is as funny, quirky and animated as ever, and I spent half the presentation last night laughing my ass off. At times he cracked himself up so hard that he literally leaped out of his chair. It was a sight to behold.

His daughter, The Rev. Mpho Tutu, is much more calm and reserved, and the two of them together gave a wonderful showcase of the wonderful diversity inherent in our human experience. They embody the great orchestra the Archbishop used as a metaphor to describe how our differences enhance our oneness. Mpho Tutu’s short, straight and deep insights felt like the rhythm section to Desmond Tutu’s lighthearted free flowing solos. What a great duo they are, and what great ambassadors of mutual understanding and goodness.

Walking his talk with every breath, the Archbishop kept including and lifting up all of us in the audience, reminding us that without the tremendous support from around the world South Africans could not have done what they did to end apartheid. And only a person with the wit and grace of Desmond Tutu could recommend the benefits of truth and reconciliation to a nation as self-absorbed with its own greatness as the United States. What a powerful healing experience it would be if we had a safe container where people of all backgrounds could honestly share and process their historical, social and emotional grievances built up from centuries of injustice and resentment.

Here are a few more lines from the conversation I scribbled on my notepad in the dark of the symphony hall:

We’re all influenced by each other.

I can’t be human in isolation.

I am because you are. If there were no You, there couldn’t be Me.

You don’t have to be everything.

You don’t have to feel threatened by the competence of others.

Diversity is the law of life.

About the U.S.:

You’re a fantastic country, and if you get the bile out, you’ll be even more fantastic.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • I knew I had found the right summer camp for Evan when I walked to the baseball diamond and there was a big sign declaring it to be “Ubuntu Field.”

    Thanks for these inspiring words. Especially the reminder that we “don’t have to be everything.”


  • Do you know where the quote you referenced is from? I have been trying to find the origin of this quote, and have been quite unsuccessful.

    • Hi Chelsey, all the quotes in my post are from the notes I took at the event — Archbishop Desmond Tutu & The Rev. Mpho Tutu
      In conversation with Roy Eisenhardt, Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | Davies Symphony Hall, SF.