I remember years ago copying a sentence from Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline:
“He who studies people receives a graduate level education.”
And ta-da! Years later I am doing that – very literally – as a cultural anthropology PhD candidate.
To share just a few highlights from my amazing job of studying people:
- Learning that the best way to steer a pig is by hanging on to its tail
- Harmonizing through music genres from hip hop to country with a group of young singers while a guy keeps the beat slapping the top half of a female mannequin.
- Keeping company with factory workers as they stack several thousand kilograms of yogurt tubs onto crates in a morning.
- Receiving a free meal made for soup kitchen visitors.
- Laughing with a group of preschoolers as they chase a cow out of their playground.
- Shivering under a gas station awning with a group of pedestrians waiting for a hail storm to end.
- Hearing a police officer describe how his heart breaks watching drugs ruin communities.
- Seeing the story unfold of a guy starting a township youth soccer team.
But you don’t have to be working on a PhD in cultural anthropology to study people. People who study people—who notice them, see them, and really know them—are in serious shortage in our world.
We all long to be really known. Christianity teaches that being known is at the core of the relationship we crave with God—to be fully known by a God whose knowing of us is fully wrapped in love. And we want that from each other, too.
South Africans have a word for knowing and being known by people: ubuntu. Translated to English, ubuntu gets summarized: “A person is a person through knowing other people.” It’s a word that has become something of a cliché used to romanticize African communities, and many people I talk to question whether in practice it even happens anymore as trust breaks down in African communities.
But nobody questions whether it’s what we need. Everyone talks about wishing for greater ubuntu. We want to know the people around us, and we want to be known in a way that we are forgiven, accepted, trusted, and loved.
People are fascinating. You live surrounded by them. Commit to finding out what makes them tick, and you will never be bored.
Try it. You might even find somebody eager to know you, too.