Building a Sense of Community In the Wake of Suicide

I recently received a phone call from a local newspaper writer doing an article in the wake of 2 recent suicides at the local high school. He was trying to understand what it was that brings teens to commit suicide. I responded with, ‘unfortunately, there is no one reason that brings folks to commit suicide,’ which is why it is so difficult to prevent. We went over the typical warning signs and statistics behind suicide. However, one of the things that I mentioned to the writer was the importance of building a sense of community. This seemed to strike a chord with the writer as he made this the title of his article. But I’m not sure if he or his readers knew what I meant by the word, “community.”

As a Native American, the word community means something different than how the typical American might understand it. Community is a kinship or a sense of interconnectedness with every-one and every-thing.

For most American’s, there is a strong value to what has been referred to as ‘the protestant work ethic;’ if you work hard then you get what you deserve. There is nothing wrong with this point of view but it lacks a sense of community. It breeds feelings of; I’m in this on my own. It also hints at beliefs that if someone is struggling, it is likely because they are getting what they deserve. We don’t try to figure out what is going on with this struggling person because we’ve already made up our mind that this person is getting what they deserve. While this may not be explicitly verbalized or consciously thought about, it is there at the underlying surface of one’s worldview and perspective in life.

For many Native American cultures, community means that there is no ‘I’ but rather ‘we’. Lifting up and helping others is a way to strengthen the self but it is seen as strengthening the whole. This mentality, helped to assure the survivability of the tribe presently as well as in the future.

This concept of wholeness is foreign to contemporary American culture. From day one, we are taught to begin parsing things out into categories: girls/boys, warm colors/cool colors, mammals/reptiles, deciduous/conifer, right/wrong, good/bad, popular/nerd, rich/poor, and so on. We are taught in school to focus on these differences. While there is nothing wrong with this form of understanding, it does however deemphasize the similarities and interrelationships between these things, which do exist. It is in this inability to recognize relationships that diminishes a sense of community.

In many Native American cultures, we are taught to look at the interrelationship between things. Emphasis is placed on orienting oneself to maximizing one’s harmony with everything else. When one works hard, they work hard for everyone in the community. They strive to make sure that their actions are beneficial for every-one and every-thing.

Their understanding of community goes beyond just people (every-one). They recognize that they are dependent on the animals and plants (every-thing) for sustenance. They also recognize that these things are dependent on the water, soil, air, and the sun. This complex web of interrelationships is always on the mind for many Native Americans. By striving to uplift and the entire community, everyone benefits, leading to happier healthier lives.

For many Americans, life is separated into time spent for this or that and rarely is it spent intertwined. There is a time for learning, a time for work, a time for vacation, a time to eat, a time to sleep, personal time, time with friends, a time for prayer, and so on. Time is a commodity that can be wasted or invested. This creates separation and feelings of there never being enough time to do the things we want to do.

For many Native Americans, traditionally time didn’t really exist; it least not in the same way Euro-Americans understands time. For Natives, activities are integrated. There isn’t really a separate time for this or that. Learning can be integrated with family time, work, and their spirituality. These things occurred naturally and were not forced. One went to sleep because they were tired not because it was bedtime. This integrated sense of activities means that there is always time for what is occurring at the moment. This means everything was given its due diligence when it presented itself. There was always time to help someone or ask if they needed help.

The recent suicides are a sign of disharmony in our community. As strangers, neighbors, co-workers, family, or friends we’ve lost our sense of community. We work hard for our immediate family, and ourselves, while we lose sight of what community really means.

For most people that are struggling and suicide has become a consideration, there is something that the collective scientific research on suicide agrees upon. Most suicide is prevented when every-one is there to potentially help. This means family, friends, teachers, co-workers, bosses, employees, neighbors, and strangers are all watching out for one another and willing to lend a helping hand.

That struggling person may not be getting what they deserve. They could be getting ruthlessly teased and bullied because of their appearance. We will never know unless we ask and check in with them. Lets not dismiss these suicides as someone else’s fault. These are our kids of our community letting us know that something is terribly wrong. If there is fault to be placed, it is on the community (every-one and every-thing). So there is no point in trying to determine who’s at fault.

Lets start looking out for one another, helping one another, and checking in with one another. Integrate your time with family, friends and helping the community. Lift each other up because this lifts up the whole community. Reestablish those lost relationships with every-one and every-thing. You will benefit, I will benefit, our neighbors will benefit, and most importantly, our community will benefit.

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