Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Building Compassion and Joy From the Inside Out- A Conversation with Reverend Nontombi Naomi Tutu

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

The daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a co-writer of the acclaimed The Book of Joy, discusses her father’s ideas of joy, as well as her own journey towards joyfulness in a world that at times can seem joyless.

This year, I was privileged enough to be involved with a group called the Buffs One Read program. This program is a community at CU whose aim is to “build community through the shared reading of one book,” and each year they select a book that they think the CU community, especially first years, would find valuable in navigating new classes and college life. This year, the selected book was The Book of Joy, a documentation of a conversation surrounding joyfulness between His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, transcribed and interpreted by Douglas Abrams (P.S. first years, you can still go to the library and get a free copy of this book!). His Holiness the Dalai Lama, even after spending nearly 70 years in exile from his homeland of Tibet, remains a beacon of hope and joy not only for his cultural and spiritual community, but to people around the world seeking a better understanding of inner peace and kindness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is regarded in a similar light, maintaining a peaceful and compassionate position despite having worked tirelessly to bring an end to one of the world’s most hateful societal systems, apartheid in South Africa. These two incredible men, who shared a close friendship despite only meeting a handful of times, were able to come together to give their advice about remaining compassionate, understanding, and most importantly, joyful, even in the face of unthinkable injustice and adversity.

While the Archbishop has unfortunately passed away since the release of The Book of Joy, the Buffs One Read program was lucky enough to book a conversation centering the practice of being joyful with his daughter and esteemed speaker, Reverend Nontombi Naomi Tutu. While I would still absolutely recommend engaging with the book itself, Reverend Tutu’s conversation wonderfully rounded out both her and her father’s experiences in living a joyful life, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to relay her words of wisdom.

To start, I want to clarify something that was explained very early on, both in the book and in Reverend Tutu’s discussion: being joyful is not always about feeling happy all the time, but about living a life in which you feel content and fulfilled. With that context in place, let’s get into the discussion.

Reverend Tutu began her talk with the following statement: “Joy is a byproduct of an open mind and heart.” This message was also very present in The Book of Joy, and is an important precursor to recognize before even attempting to understand how joyfulness works. After conveying this central theme, the Reverend continued to explain her other thesis statement necessary to understanding the rest of her discussion, which is that it’s important to find joy in the fact that no matter what, no one can take away our humanity.

This may seem pretty obvious, but it’s an important fact to remember when seeking a consistent state of joyfulness. We need to see both the humanity in us as well as the humanity of others, recognizing that that is something we share with every other person on this Earth. Reverend Tutu explained that “when we recognize the presence of God (i.e. humanity) in ourselves and others, we begin to realize how beautiful each one of us is. We realize that we have each been chosen, molded, and built to be a gift.” Now, the Reverend acknowledged that this isn’t always the easiest thing for us humans to accept. We are taught that some of us are better and different from others because of the labels that we give to ourselves, based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. Because we are taught that this is the truth of life, we tend to accept the fact that some people are just automatically better than others.

However, the truth is that each of us comes into this world bearing something that this world desperately needs. Reverend Tutu referred to this as a “gift,” because there is always something, a talent we possess or a passion that we hold, that the world would not be the same without. Therefore, it’s important that we recognize ourselves and our fellow human beings as gifts to the world, because that is why we are created in the image that we are. And the best part is, our gift is often something that gives us great joy to be doing.

Reverend Tutu told a funny story to emphasize her point. She said that when she told her sister about her theory of gifts and how, most often, our gift lies in what we are passionate about, her sister laughed and said, “well, I love shopping, is that my gift?” Annoyed at the joke, Reverend Tutu brushed off her comment and thought that maybe she was the one exception to the rule. However the next year, the sisters’ church took on a refugee family who was in need of household supplies, furniture, clothing, etc. And who did they choose to do all the shopping for this family in need? Yep, Reverend Tutu’s older sister.

So as much as Reverend Tutu was irked by her sister’s snide comments about it, her point was proven: so often in life, the things that we love the most are exactly what is needed in the world. The problem with this is, for so many of us, is that we tend to see others’ gifts before we see our own gifts. This makes us very self critical, and we’re inclined to put ourselves down, simply because we can’t recognize that our gifts may be different from others’. And here we come to Reverend Tutu’s next point: the importance of compassion.

Both Reverend Tutu in her talk as well as The Book of Joy discuss compassion as the most important factor in having a joyful existence. They say that as humans, we are built to rely on a sense of community and trust between each other. This is impossible, Reverend Tutu says, if we can not even feel that compassion for ourselves. In order to find the joy in compassion, one must first practice with themselves, by knowing that you have the capacity to become better, if you wish it, but not abusing yourself in order to get there. It’s important that we give ourselves grace, love, and forgiveness as we would to a loved one, because once we recognize the humanness in ourselves, it’s impossible not to recognize that same sense of human nature and vulnerability in others.

Once we’ve come to the point of recognizing the gift that each of us, in our humanness, brings to society, we can start to use this skill to deflect the things in life that work to take away our joy. For example, we can understand that when someone dehumanizes us, when they objectify us and try to take something away from us, they are in turn dehumanizing themselves. We all share the quality of being human, and disregarding that in someone else automatically proves you are disregarding it within yourself.

Of course, that isn’t to say that we aren’t allowed to feel angry and upset when someone dehumanizes us. The world we live in is full of people who have forgotten their humanity, working to fill that space by making someone else forget theirs. What Reverend Tutu was explaining was that we can refuse to let them take it away from us. We can protect ourselves by feeling pity for, and consequently developing compassion for, those who are unable to reciprocate it at this time. We can find joy by releasing the need to demean ourselves and others, recognizing that we are enough simply for being human and recognizing the humanity in others.

This isn’t to say that joyful people always have to be the bigger person. Reverend Tutu spoke about how, too often, we expect the oppressed to be the bigger person in situations where they are the ones being attacked. But, she reminded us, the most important thing for everyone is to be alive and safe. Sometimes, we can simply be grateful for those who are making greater sacrifices and putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of peace, but that doesn’t always have to be us. Sometimes, the best that we can do in order to foster a more peaceful world, as well as to live more joyfully, is to hold every person in a place of compassion in our hearts. We can recognize the possibility of a kind person in them because we can see the possibility of a kind person in us.

Along a similar vein, Reverend Tutu spoke about the upcoming presidential election, and how we can reconcile our compassion even with the limited options that we have before us. “Sometimes,” the Reverend explained, “sometimes all we can do is what we can do.” Life doesn’t always give us easy choices, and there will be times where we need to realize that the small things are all that we can do, and that doesn’t make them any less important. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and as long as we go forth with compassion and patience in our hearts, we can remain joyful and hopeful for the future.

Overall, Reverend Tutu had four points that she wanted people at her talk to leave with. Firstly, you are a gift. Secondly, in order to be a gift you must step into your own humanity, which, thirdly,  can not happen if you are not compassionate, starting with yourself. And lastly, it is only when we acknowledge that we are each a gift, and that we were created to experience community, that we will be able to truly live in a state of joyfulness.

Collette Mace

CU Boulder '26

Collette Mace is thrilled to be a writer for the University of Colorado, Boulder chapter. Outside of Her Campus, Collette is a second year student at CU studying English, as well as working in the School of Education towards a secondary English teaching licensure. She has interned for local newspapers including the Sky-Hi news in Granby, CO. While most of her work experience has been in cafes and coffee shops, she was lucky enough to work at Grand Kids Learning Center in Fraser, CO, over the summer of 2023 as an assistant teacher, primarily with pre-school aged children. In her free time, Collette adores reading and reviewing as many novels as she can get her hands on. While she prefers reading outside, often after an adventure with her dog, Luna, she will always seize the opportunity to seek out a new coffee shop to enjoy while she reads. She's a movie enthusiast (and will often see new movies in theaters at least twice) and will never pass up a chance to support the dramatic arts. Collette also enjoys going to concerts (when funds allow it), with Red Rocks being her favorite venue-- except for the parking, of course. She is passionate about politics, especially concerning education and schools.