Seeing the Good in Ourselves: a Conversation with Mpho Tutu

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When I called the Rev. Mpho Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and co-author with him of the book Made for Goodness, I sensed our interview might be different. I've been a published author for over sixteen years and even though I “try” to say a quick prayer before I conduct an interview, and I assume some of my interview subjects do likewise, Mpho was the first person who asked me if we could actually pray together before I started asking her questions. From our prayer, a conversation flowed about how any individual can work towards bringing goodness into a fractured world.

What prompted you to write the book Made for Goodness with your father?

For my father's part, it was a response to a question he gets asked very often, which is “How does he sustain his joyful spirit in the face of all the destruction he's seen in places like Rwanda, South Africa, and Gaza?” It was an opportunity for me to explore those questions with my father and continue the conversation about faith that we've been having for quite a while.

What does it mean then to say that we are “made for goodness?”

As we say in the book, our essential quality is goodness. My father and I believe that we are created by a good God for goodness, which is not to say that we're required to act that way. We can choose to act out of that essential quality or we can choose to act contrary to the way we're created. But if we take a close look at ourselves, we'll realize that it makes us feel good to act out of our goodness. Even though the headlines are full of murder, mayhem, war and other human inflicted horrors, those things make the headlines precisely because they are aberrations They wouldn't be newsworthy if they were the norm of our behaviors.

How then do you interpret the first chapter of Genesis?

In each of the acts of creation, God says at the end, “and this was good.” Then at the end of creating humanity, God looks at all of it and says, “this is very good.” The fact that we act contrary to that goodness doesn't ease the essence of who we are. We weren't created to act contrary to God's intention. We're created out of love to be loving.

How have you and your father managed to find joy in your work despite some of the heartbreaking stories you both tell in Made for Goodness?

There's this incredible resilience and grace that I see in human beings over and over again. In places of great sadness, there's also the opportunity for great strength. Even in those places where we see the worst of human horror, we also see the best of human spirit. People who have been tortured are still able to see with compassion the humanity of those who are torturing them. I'm constantly astounded by people and that is a huge measure of where I draw my sustenance and joy.

What advice to you give to others so they can learn to see signs of goodness even when encountering a very depressed situation at work or at home?

One of the ways of sustaining joy is to hold on to the recognition that these moments may be excruciatingly sad and painful but pain is not the end of the story. Ultimately, good will prevail. I think that one of the graces of prayer is not only in what we offer to God but it's also what we're seeing. When we can get off that little hamster wheel that we put ourselves on and spin around and around, we can see there is a world beyond ourselves.

How do you differentiate between happiness and joy?

Happiness is that moment when you're walking around with a smile on your face and all is right with the world. Joy is the knowledge that even if in this moment all is not right in the world for me, that in an ultimate way, it's going to be all right.

What scripture, songs or other resources to you find to be particularly helpful in those times when you don't know if all is going to be all right?

I don't always run for scripture though I do find Psalms 26 and 91 helpful. I tend to lean into song. There's a South African song that is quite jaunty which when translated means “even if the road is thorny, we can pray.” It has such a lift in the music that it removes the weight.

What can people do on an everyday basis to bring about goodness in a world that seems to be more filled with fear than hope some days?

Our prayer does shape us if we allow ourselves to really sit and ponder the prayers of the church. Also, we can go and help somebody. And if we make it a habit to seek out stories of goodness, grace and kindness on a daily or weekly basis, these stories can help remind us that the grim pronouncements aren't the whole of who we are. We can allow ourselves to believe the person across the way from us is actually intending to do well by us instead of always viewing them with suspicion. By learning to see that person with God's eyes, we can assume that the person does intend a good thing and a good outcome.

What spiritual practices do you find to be particularly helpful in building hope?

I have my daily prayer. Then I set aside some times for meditation during the day. Also, I do at least some daily devotional reading as well. That frames my day by starting the day in prayer and then staying in prayer during the day. My father spent a lot of time in prayer. Even though he's incredibly busy, there were certain times during the day when he was not available because he's at prayer. As I have increased the amount of time I give myself for prayer and mapping out my prayer time as a priority, it puts me in a different emotional place in dealing with other people where I can operate more out of my own center.

Currently, the Rev. Mpho Tutu is the founder and Executive Director of the Tutu Institute for Prayer & Pilgrimage.

Post by Becky Garrison, author of Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ