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In Lakota culture, I am not alone

In Lakota culture, there is a term tiyospaye (tee-YOsh-pie-ay), which refers to the belief that family extends to all members of their tribe and does not just refer to their immediate relatives. According to Native Hope, a non-profit aimed at bringing change and hope to Native voices, “Tiyospaye embraces the beauty of living in harmony, taking care of one another, and trusting each other. Your tiyospaye will support you throughout life’s journeys, whether the road is rocky or the path smooth.”Although I am not Lakota, I am lucky to observe, and be on the receiving end of this centuries-old community system as a Jesuit Volunteer on many occasions.

One night during our Christmas break, we received 4-5 inches of snow and our house badly needed groceries. With the car stuck in the garage, we headed out to shovel the driveway. Outside the temperature hovered around -10 F with a brisk wind chill that made it feel even colder. Seeing three bone-chilled souls trying to shovel their driveway, a driver with a snow plow attached to the front of his truck came to a stop.

Without hesitation the gentleman offered to clear our driveway, and in two go-throughs he finished a job in a few seconds that would’ve taken the three of us 30 minutes. My community-mate, we’ll call him Jack, asked the man what he wanted in return and simply replied, “a handshake”. Watching the truck drive away, an immense sense of gratitude filled all of us, eliciting smiles from our chapped lips.

This gentleman did not need to make this gesture of generosity. I know without his assistance we would have cleared our driveway, but that’s not the point. The point being he went out of his way to take care of and support another member of his community simply because that is how to treat others.

I never thought myself as being alone because growing up in St. Louis, MO, meant I was surrounded by a population of more than 1 million people. Looking back, I can see that alone, both mentally and spiritually is exactly what I was! Lacking much of a family and community support system, my perceived isolation from others and God significantly contributed to my warped belief that I am undeserving of love. With constant reinforcement of this self-image, and my status as legally blind, I opened wide the door for depression to settle in and build walls around my heart and mind.

Back home in St. Louis, peoples’ problems are often perceived as their own burden to bear. A passersby will likely think to themselves, “sucks for that guy”, with little concern about personally helping without compensation (I am just as guilty as anyone else of this). In many instances, a sense of community support is lost among the individualistic and self-concerned nature of large Western populations. Perhaps Mother Teresa put it best: “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

Without this sense of support from others, people, including myself, can easily fail to perceive themselves as significant and full of purpose. However, thanks to the community here on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and my JVC community, I am slowly coming to understand the real strength of what it means to be in community with others and, in turn, with God.

As a Christian grappling with my faith and the idea of my dependency upon God, there is something humbling to be learned from reflecting on the Lakota tiyospaye and this man’s generous act of community. My takeaway is simple yet extremely valuable at this point in my life: I am not alone. Although I can face my obstacles alone, surrounding myself with a community based in love puts those struggles to rest quicker, more simply, and in most instances, much more enjoyable. In the same sense, “whether the road is rocky or the path smooth” I always have the love and support of God to accompany my journey.

For years, I’ve lived with the misunderstanding that I am alone in the struggles of my life and that I neither need, nor deserve, the affection of others. Living in intentional community with God and others, I have learned the exact opposite of myself. While I’ve made mistakes and will fail to be perfect time and time again, I am still worthy of compassion in the continuous learning process that is life. In many ways, this support will help to propel myself further than anywhere I could get alone. This new understanding gives me a new tool in combating my depression which is, brick by brick, tearing down those walls I’ve built and fortified around my heart and mind. With a bit of simple living in mind, these bricks are now being recycled to build a bridge of vulnerability outwards toward God.