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Sawubona, Say What?

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

"We can never get a re-creation of community and heal our society without giving our citizens a sense of belonging." Dr. Hunter Doherty "Patch" Adams, physician and author, community builder

John and I made it a point to go to the community meal last night. As usual, I aimed to sit with someone different than me, someone outside my affinity group (for example - different gender, age, ethnicity, or perceived socio-economic group, or simply a stranger). Fascinating conversation often follows.

One of the younger men I chatted with did not take long to get in the groove. He shared his love of ice hockey. He’d attended a few games until he was thrown out for having a “big mouth,” he said.

“Yeah, I was diagnosed bi-polar. I have trouble controlling my mouth.” That confession gave me pause since I have heard a lot of loud mouths at hockey games. Evidently there was also some choking involved. Nevertheless, his disarming honesty made it easy for me to like him.

Eventually, after mutually sharing of a bunch of hockey stories, I asked my table what they thought our community needed. Was it more support for the food bank, more affordable housing, what?

It did not even take a second for the man to answer. “We need more help with mental illness. We need family, we need community – like this.”

I was not so surprised the bi-polar hockey enthusiast offered this, but also every person (including the doctor and the church spiritual development leader and writer) at the table shook their heads affirmatively. They shared tidbits to support their perspective.

Yes, some (or someone in their family) had used the food bank at one time or another. Yes, they could use (or could see the need for) affordable housing, but they stood firm on the bigger need for help with mental wellbeing.

I thought back to the 150,000 people Gallup surveyed and the book their CEO, Jon Clifton’s wrote, Blindspot: The Global Rise of Unhappiness and How Leaders Missed it. Clifton explains that we have used the wrong measures to evaluate how nations are doing.

We find out a lot more about what people are unhappy about when it comes time for elections. Or we could go to a community meal.

Political consultant, James Carville, we all remember, said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Pundits now are waking up to something bigger. People all over the globe are experiencing pain of all sorts, especially social and psychological hurt.

To quote a New York Times piece which appeared yesterday written by David Brooks, “Often, it’s human flourishing, stupid, including community cohesion, a sense of being respected, social connection.”

The article winds up observing the world of widening emotional inequality. The top 20 percent of the world is quite happy, the bottom 20 percent is deeply miserable. It’s an unstable situation. The article ends, “the emotional health of the world is shattering.”

But it doesn’t have to. We know how to turn this around.

Put our smartphones down. Get out in the community. Talk. Listen. Ask questions. Build relationships.

Maybe we could learn more about how to practice sawubona. In South Africa, it’s the Zulu way of saying hello.

Literally translated sawubona means, “I see you and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” It is our relationships with each other – our mutual acknowledgements that “bring us into being.”

I lean heavily here on the work of Dr. Susan David, an executive coach and expert in in emotional intelligence, who grew up in South Africa.

Susan David says that she’s a problem-solver. She often wants to dive right into fixing. Sawubona reminds us to pause and establish relationship before leaping into action, she tells her clients.

“When someone is dealing with a problem, it’s just as important to make sure they feel they’ve been seen and their feelings honored. Sawubona opens up a space for this experience of connection and recognition.”

The funniest video (I am sure you have seen it) is the one where the man is talking with a woman who has a nail in her head. She is complaining of her headaches. He sees the nail and wants desperately to just pull that nail out. She is angered by his lack of validation of her feelings. Not going to let him touch that nail. (I've watched it at least twenty-five times and still yuk it up. It's not about the nail )

We need to learn the wisdom of sawubona if we’re going to solve our problems. It starts with seeing each other, connecting, understanding, establishing trust, before we start butting in offering our solutions.

In our compassion circle, we are learning that sometimes the problem seems to solve itself once we really see and hear each other.

One member shared this week that she was visiting with a friend who had been in the hospital for a month. He was depressed, sick, unable to care for himself. He needed to go to a facility which could deal with his situation. He wasn’t having it until…

The hospital staff learned that he had played the horn. Even made some CD’s. They found a player and a few of his CD’s and played them in his hospital room. His attitude changed.

The man said something like, “I really wanted to go back to my house, but these people care about me. I trust them. I will do what they recommend. Look, they even brought me my CD’s.”

I don’t know the answers to the pain many are feeling, but I’m pretty sure I know what can help. Practicing our own version of sawubona.

Btw, many of us have problems connecting with strangers, with people unlike us. I found one piece of research I have never seen published outside of academia.

The thing that can help, might seen unrelated, but evidently it works according to researchers is to start with a bit of gratitude.

Think about something, anything that you feel grateful for. Clean air, water, an old friend, a moment in the sun, a favorite book or place.

Somehow, the good chemicals start flowing and we can, with more ease, step a bit more bravely out of our comfort zone, give a smile, a hello, maybe even say our name and create a space where a relationship might happen. Gratitude seems to bolster our own sense of belonging.

It’s worth experimenting with. I would love to hear what happens.

How might we experiment with sawubona and journey together to The Good Life?


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