Larry K. Brendtro: The Meaning of Life and the Circle of Courage

LARRY pic 2013Excellence Reporter: Dr. Brendtro, what is the meaning of life?

Larry K. Brendtro: There are two kinds of cultures in the world: dominator cultures and cultures of respect. Modern mad-dash materialism is a struggle to get ahead, “win lest you lose” says Peggy McIntosh.  We see this all around in the quest for money, fame, power, and privilege. But my years working with the Native Americans of South Dakota presented a stark contrast of a culture of respect: mitakuye oyasin is the oft repeated Lakota phrase meaning “we are all relatives.”

We answer the question about the meaning of life with another question: What are the most important needs of all humans in order to live in balance and well-being? My research with Lakota psychologist Dr. Martin Brokenleg explored this question from the perspective of traditional Native culture. Four themes emerge, and we call this the Circle of Courage; we capitalize these to emphasize their essential nature: Belonging, Mastery, Independence, and Generosity.

We experience Belonging when we feel accepted (maybe a better word is loved) by at least one other human, and ideally a family and community who live in mutual respect. We know Mastery as we learn and develop our skills, understanding, and talents. Independence involves both managing our inner life (emotions) as well as having a sense of personal power to shape our destiny. Generosity is the center of all ethical systems, and the reasons that humans have survived: we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

When the Circle is complete, life is in balance. When not, we experience a host of emotional, social, and physical problems. So, it is time to get back to basics.

A Cree from Alberta shared that he had asked his most revered elder: “Grandfather, what is the meaning of life?” The old man thought for a while and then responded, “Children are the meaning of life. We were once young and someone cared for us, and now it is our time to care.”

The power of that statement is best understood in a language other than English. In Western European languages, the word “child” lacks power and thus respect. But in Lakota, the world child means “sacred being.” In Maori, the word child means “gift of God” In Nigeria, the Ibu word child means “What wonders has God wrought.” It is time to recapture the wisdom of the ages and restore meaning to life.


~Larry K. Brendtro, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, author, advocate for children and youth at risk. He is founder of Reclaiming Youth International and an “adopted” member of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux tribe. Dr. Brendtro and colleagues developed the Circle of Courage® model of positive development based on traditional tribal wisdom.

Copyright © 2015 Excellence Reporter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.