By: Kim DeCoste Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel
As I wrote this article on a beautiful, clear day in Keystone, Colorado, I felt close to the prevailing sense of hope and optimism that was shared by Bishop Desmond Tutu. While he and I have little in common, I have long been inspired by his work and his influence around the world.
I must preface this piece by saying that Bishop Tutu has been in my lexicon since the early 1980’s, when I learned of Apartheid. I heard about it first at the dinner table from my stepfather who had lived in Africa as a young man.
While my interview with Bishop Tutu was conducted via email, his tone was so clear that I felt as if I could hear him—quite literally—in my head as I read his words. I asked him about progress, collaboration, leaders who inspired him, and his own personal source of joy. And as I read his responses I was reminded that we have the ability to effect change in the world in all that we do. But perhaps, we just don’t think about it as often as we should.
ICOSA: When you look at the situation in South Africa now relative to when you began your work, where do you see the most change? What makes you most proud?
BISHOP TUTU: Well, it is the people. The people have proved to be really incredible. I mean, obviously we have spectacular examples like Nelson Mandela, but there are many, many, many others. I could give so many examples here. Long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I was the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, and I was sitting in my office minding my own business, when a young man came in who had been tortured in detention, and had been serving a banning order, and I still remember so vividly him saying to me, "You know, Father, when these people are torturing you, and they say that they are in charge, you say ‘yes’ they are running this country. But you look at them, and you see these are God’s children, and they are losing their humanity. They need us to help them recover their humanity." Now that was a young man who was probably in his late twenties. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I remember a white woman who had survived a hand grenade attack, but it had left her so badly injured that she spent six months in ICU, and when she was discharged, she could not do things for herself—she had to be helped by her children to bathe, to clothe, to eat, and she had shrapnel still in her. She said of the experience, that had left her in this condition, that it enriched her life, and she said, "I want to meet the person who did this in a spirit of forgiveness; I want to forgive him." She went on to say, "I hope he will forgive me." Now all you can say is it is mind-boggling when you have people of that kind of character, and we have been blessed in our country that we have many such.
ICOSA: Are there any particular leaders in human history who have inspired the work you do?
BISHOP TUTU: Well, you know, I had tuberculosis as a child, and went to the hospital for nearly two years. During that time, about once a week, Trevor Huddleston, a priest who became a renowned anti-Apartheid activist, came to see me in the hospital. I wasn’t aware at the time that maybe something was etching itself into my consciousness, but I must have been taken in, because the impression that it made was of someone caring…and caring for me. In South Africa, a white person caring for a black township urchin went to contributing to a lack of bitterness against whites, because there was at least one white man who seemed to be a nice white man. He lived in Sophiatown where he shared the life of the deprived people. He touched my life, and I’m so very grateful that he did, because he was just a tremendous advertisement for God and goodness. He was a champion of the dispossessed and really cared enormously.
ICOSA: What gives you the greatest joy? What inspires and invigorates you?
BISHOP TUTU: I am quite taken by young people. I’m always amazed, really, at their idealism—the fact that they do indeed believe that this world can become a better world. Myself, I have very great hope for the world. We face enormous problems—there is hunger, there is conflict, there is poverty. We, particularly in South Africa, are being devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and in a way, you almost want to say there is no hope, that the world is going down the tubes. But I think, No!
There are these fantastic people, especially these young people, who dream dreams, who are idealistic, who really do believe that the world can become a better place and I think that is one of our greatest hopes. So it is young people, not exclusively, who usually have demonstrated against war, who have demonstrated against international organizations that seem to favor the affluent, and they are saying, "This world can become a better place. This world can become a place that is hospitable to peace, to justice, to compassion. It can become a world where poverty is indeed history."
ICOSA: How does collaboration play into your approach to solving different problems?
BISHOP TUTU: In South Africa, we have something we call Ubuntu. Ubuntu means that a person is a person through other persons. In other words, I can be human only through relationships with other human beings. Because I wouldn’t know how to speak as a human being, I wouldn’t know how to walk, I wouldn’t know how to be human except through learning it from other human beings. And so we see eliminating poverty, ensuring that people are healthy, providing education and things of that kind is not being altruistic, it’s the best form of self-interest. It means that we’re safe. Actually, I say that we can be human only together. We can be prosperous only together. We can be free only together. We can be secure, ultimately, only together. This is God’s dream, that we will realize that we are family. That at our best, it is when in fact we show that we are connected. And until we do, we’re going to find that all kinds of things go wrong.
I could not find a more perfect ending for this article than Bishop Tutu’s simple words, "We can be human only together. We can be prosperous only together. We can be free only together. We can be secure, ultimately, only together. This is God’s dream, that we will realize that we are family."
These simple words written from a man in Africa to a woman in Colorado—two distant people, who will likely never meet, inspire me to work harder to be understanding and to be more "human" in the spirit of hope and optimism.
Kim DeCoste is the Director of Career Services for Colorado Technical University and President of DeCoste & Associates, LLC. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303.362.2948.