Ubuntu and the Hopelessness of Individualism

By Christopher Sofolo 4-25-2012
Flag decorated white picket fence, Bill Fehr / Shutterstock.com
Flag decorated white picket fence, Bill Fehr / Shutterstock.com

What is Ubuntu? The principle of Ubuntu was birthed in Africa and there is no direct translation of the word into English. Archbishop Desmond Tutu summarizes it well:

“You know when it is there, and it is obvious when it is absent. It has to do with what it means to be truly human, it refers to gentleness, to compassion, to hospitality, to openness to others, to vulnerability, to be available for others and to know that you are bound up with them in the bundle of life, for a person is only a person through other persons.”

The observations of my life thus far have led me to conclude that it is popular to argue for the advancement of the individual. Not simply personal enrichment, but the pursuit of personal growth for the sake of personal glorification and ultimately material wealth. This ideology is rampant in American culture. And much like the DDT trucks of the not-so-distant past it is forced upon our children—without our permission—via the mass media and many popular textbooks leaving behind a toxic plume of apathy.

But wait, isn’t this the soul of our nation—the American Dream? Yes, many would argue that what makes America great is the ability for anyone to pursue their dreams and fulfill their desires without hindrance, whether they be grandiose, banal or vile. I emphasize without hindrance as it speaks to a lack of accountability. Unfettered individualism bares its teeth at the slightest threat of restrained personal liberties, kicking against the guilt of responsibility to others. In lieu of compassion is an insatiable lust for more control. In the pursuit of individualism, one’s own fulfillment and advancement not only ranks higher than that of others, but often does not even consider the consequences that one’s choices may have in the lives of others. Entire lives are often spent amassing things and building a personal “legacy”. While this may bring much happiness to the individual, you can’t help but ask yourself if the American Dream is just a glorification of the frivolous, an embrace of the superficial—thrilling, yet numbingly meaningless.

The Dream is pervasively marketed as an attainable goal, a fantasy that can be realized if one works hard enough—a clever little trick by the status quo to keep the working class productive while drunk on the lie of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. The average worker scrambles every month to pay bills while piling on the overtime just to try to make ends meet. Amidst the anxiety, our vision is blurred by a mirage in the distance consisting of home ownership, picket fences and membership into the upper crust. Like any of that even matters at this point! Pursuit of the American Dream alienates us from our labor, the Earth, fellow humans and ultimately ourselves.

It is in this alienation that the danger of individualism lies. We can become so disconnected from others that our ethical imperative is destroyed and replaced with unabashed egoism. We become so obsessed with ourselves and our place in the Dream that we disregard others at best and oppress and destroy them at worst. The Dream creates a Nightmare much more sizable than itself and frighteningly more powerful. We daydream about the Dream all of our lives unless we are lucky enough to be awoken into the reality of the Nightmare we occupy. This is surprisingly liberating as we are now free to exercise our greatest human faculty—the ability to change our world.

In an epiphany of sorts we realize our vast need for others and the hopelessness of our individualism. We are social creatures, and like an ant or a bee we are lost without the community. To leave the colony and venture out alone would be suicide, as is the pursuit of the individualist. The principle of Ubuntu acknowledges our vital connection to others and the mutual profitability therein. One is not lost or devalued in the community, but rather finds meaningful purpose. Non-self is not an option, but rather what I like to call the we-self. The we-self is a conclusion I draw from studying the principle of Ubuntu, drawing on the idea that we are bound up with all other humanity and that our identity is found not only in ourselves, but in others.

A fully functioning we-self is a practitioner of the principle of Ubuntu and has a moral duty to others, not only for their sake, but also for one’s own sake, for they are one and the same. This is the paradox of the we-self. It shatters the dualism of us/them or self/other and introduces the concept of self as a unifying principle in the form of “I am you, you are me”. It is simultaneously hedonistic and altruistic because by helping others we are helping ourselves, by hurting others we are hurting ourselves. It synthesizes individual interest and collective interest and ushers in a powerful ethical imperative where all beings are seen as ends rather than means.

The we-self recognizes the destructive nature of the American Dream and the capitalistic society that birthed it. The we-self always seeks equilibrium and therefore must resist systems of unbalanced power and resources. The we-self paves the way for a new society where wealth is measured in liberation, justice and peace.

To practice Ubuntu is to be fully human, to live a life of compassion and empathy, remaining mindful of the tendons that connect us to everything. I argue that one’s true self cannot be realized as an individual. One cannot reach his fullest potential as an autonomous being. The true self is reached only when one awakens to their interconnectedness with other beings and interdependence on the human collective and the natural world. When this reality dwells in the consciousness of the individual, a fully functioning, flourishing life is then possible—for all.


Hailing from the Midwest, Christopher Sofolo is a husband (to one) and a father (of three). He is a somewhat sarcastic and ridiculously sentimental spiritual seeker and sociology student; always looking to absorb knowledge from all things/all people. He occasionally blogs at http://sofolo.posterous.com.

Flag decorated white picket fence photo, Bill Fehr / Shutterstock.com

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