Members of the northern Natal tribes of South African greet one another daily by saying “Sawa bona”, which literally means: “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona” which means: “I am here”. This exchange is important, for it denotes that ‘until you ‘see’ me, I do not exist; and when you ‘see’ me, you bring me into existence. Members of these tribes go about their day with this personal validation from everyone they encounter – seen for who they are. This speaks to the powerful intrinsic human need for validation, which we all share. Compared to greetings in American and most western cultures this kind of deep acknowledgement of the ‘other’ on a daily basis is far more humane and vital, and it supports the wellbeing and integrity of the human community. Our western way of saying “Hello. How are you?” lacks this presence – this depth. Often we greet in an automatic, and rather perfunctory way, not really paying attention to the other’s response. Ready to rush on once the greeting leaves our lips. But the response we get may very well be “Well I’m not doing so great”. We expect and assume a standard and predictable retort from the ‘other’, such as “I’m fine, and you?” which keeps us comfortable and not requiring any further effort or engagement on our part. Too often our greetings are not meant to go any deeper than superficial pleasantries. We hear what we want to hear because we don’t want to or have time to engage at deeper levels. We generally are not comfortable with and avoid those kinds of openings and intrigues.
The use of this greeting: “I see you” in the movie Avatar did not originate from the minds of Hollywood. However, it is more of a reflection on indigenous cultures and the depth to which they validate one another on a regular basis. It is more of an example of how indigenous cultures have evolved their practices of human interactions and the manner in which they value and honor ‘the other’. Western and so-called “modern” cultures have much to learn from such cultures of people whom are historically regarded as “undeveloped or uncivilized.”
What we stand to learn from the South African tribes is the importance of being ‘present’ with every person we greet during each day. Our presence with them validates their humanity – which in-turn validates our own humanity. We must watch and manage our tendency to rush through greetings, our tendency to not really ‘see’ or listen to others as they share their points of view or frames of thought. We must monitor our tendency to get busy formulating assumptions and rebuttals while watching the other person’s lips move; and our tendency to impose criticism or even advice when it is not invited. These are forms of abuse, which often leaves the ‘other’ feeling bereft, assailed or treated in some unseemly way and embodying a vague sense of ‘dis-ease’ from a simple personal exchange. Moreover, these unsound feelings interfere with one’s further interactions, because this leftover ‘hurt’ energy must be relieved and acted out in some way.
The universal laws that govern ‘presence’ and ‘validation’ are at work in all of our everyday encounters. The ‘future’ we may be rushing off to meet or the past that we fret about do not exist. We only have the present moment and the life energy that sustains us is only operating in the present moment. It behooves us to maximize the present moment, especially when we are in contact with others. By fully acknowledging the ‘other’ we energize not only them, but we energize our relationship with them. And that kind of charge can move mountains!
The words we use in our everyday communications from the moment we rise to the moment we lay down to sleep are energetic tools. They are tools that keep our life running. They can ignite or deflate our day. Our words energize or deflect relationships. We must be careful how we treat others with our words. We must not allow technology, the rush of everyday living or our own personal stresses and preoccupations to turn us into vacant, anxious talking heads. It’s a good thing to take the full measure of the man, woman, youth and child you meet along the way. It is noble to make the acknowledgement of the ‘other’ a valued everyday practice, and to exit each human exchange with the full satisfaction of knowing that you brought someone else into existence!
Elizabeth Taylor, Ph.D.