Do you recall the early days of 2020? I expect you do.
We began the year hearing about this scary virus that was becoming lethal in China. “Over there” where people lived so close, and likely had bad hygiene (we said).
We moved into February reading about the virus that then popped up “over there” in Italy. You know the Italians (we said), they are an older population, and they hug and kiss way too much.
Surely Covid-19 won’t have the same impact over here. Then March came.
New York City where people live so densely (we said), but then any illusions we had about the world’s health not being interdependent were dispelled. Or they should have been.
We are given by our Creator the gift of agency. We get to decide a great deal where we go, what we eat, and when (or if) we exercise.
Possibly we can be forgiven for over-emphasizing how independent we are when it comes to our health. But the ideological pathology of individualism makes each and every one of us sicker than we need to be.
Ubuntu is an African term that can mean “humanity,” but it is often translated as “I am because we are.” This approach to our humanity is both healthy and representative of the best of biblical and spiritual wisdom.
Take a glance at Proverbs and you’ll find the consistent warning against hubris. Look over all the letters of Paul – so much of them deal with how to live in a community.
Aristotle said that humans were political animals. He did not mean that we love to vote, but that we are people of the polis – of the city-state, of the community.
We are not meant to live alone, and none of us thrive alone. We are deeply interdependent in ways we often either forget or ignore.
This is particularly true when it comes to health – both mental and physical. Covid-19 is an obvious example of the latter.
We learned to protect each other with a mask. We know that vaccines not only save our life, but they may also save the lives of countless people with whom we interact.
Mental health is a set of complex phenomena. But there are accepted means of increasing the mental and emotional well-being of those who are sick.
One of those means is supportive housing. This isn’t inexpensive – it typically requires both public and private funding – but when done well it saves both those who are sick and keeps us all safer.
In recent years, multiple studies have confirmed the counter-intuitive reality that our mental health is directly connected to the bacteria in our digestive system. We also know now that bacteria in the mouth can affect our heart.
We’re learning how very interconnected our body systems are. This microcosm is reflected in the macro in our world.
A virus erupts in Wuhan and before long people in rural Mississippi get sick. I’ll never forget the day I gathered with a group of clergy in Jackson, where we commemorated the memories of 10,000 lost souls in that state alone.
For years, I was on a board of a large Federally Qualified Heath Center. Sun River Healthcare, as it is now called, is based in New York and operates clinics all over the city and the state.
It was started by four women of color many years ago, but now has close to a $100-million budget and treats thousands of Medicaid patients. The funding is now largely public, as New York has both expanded federal Medicaid and provides state support to ensure vulnerable populations have access to medical care.
“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” This African Proverb speaks to the same essential point of ubuntu.
Life is not a zero-sum game where we are in competition over resources, but a web of interrelated connections where I prosper if you prosper. I’m healthier if you’re healthy.
Ubuntu – I am because we are. I like the simple beauty of that.
Another definition of that word is “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” If this pings as too spiritual, you may need to check your antenna.
It is a simple fact, as the recent pandemic demonstrated, that we humans share a bond. The recognition of that bond and the strengthening of that bond will make us all healthier.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Health Day (April 7). The previous articles in the series are:
World Health Day: A Brief History | Monty Self
Stearman directs the International Advocacy Baptist Collaborative that seeks to amplify and coordinate the advocacy work of the global Baptist family at the United Nations and in WDC. He is vice chair of the board of trustees for the Parliament of World Religions and writes regularly on the intersection of religion and international/cultural affairs. For over three decades, he served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His educational background includes theological degrees from Southwestern and Princeton Seminaries and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.