In a word, Aloha

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By Diane Haynes Woodburn

Diane Haynes Woodburn“Aloha,” said the cashier as I gathered my purchases. “Aloha,” I smiled back. Such a small word, and yet the simple greeting elevated my mood, and made me reflect on this, our annual Island Living issue. If I could sum up the island lifestyle in one word, it would be just that: aloha.

Words have power. They shape the way we interpret our world and the actions we take. It matters what we say, and what we allow ourselves to hear.

As I write this, a new administration has just taken office. As recent demonstrations reveal, we’ve become a divided country, and the stakes are high. We face big questions — not simply whether Congress will repeal the Affordable Care Act, or if a wall will be built — but how we choose to function as a society. Yesterday, President Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim nations from entering the U.S., based solely on their religion and national origin. The order turns inside out the moral character our country was founded on.

Yet the issue is not whom we have elected, but how we as individuals elect to solve our problems: whether we accept the rhetoric of hate and manipulation through fear, or come together through civil discourse and mutual respect.

The people of Hawai‘i have faced such issues before.

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor; it would remain the most deadly attack on U.S. soil until the Twin Towers fell six decades later. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to interment camps in remote areas of the country. More than 100,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, more than half of them U.S. citizens, lost their homes, their businesses, their possessions, their communities and their freedom in one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in American history.

In Hawai‘i, however, relatively few Japanese were interned, thanks in large part to John A. Burns, a Honolulu policeman who then served as a special officer for the U.S. Counterintelligence Corps. Burns argued that Japanese residents were essential to the Islands’ economy, and vouched for their loyalty. (And justifiably so. Tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans enlisted, serving with unparalleled distinction in Europe as members of the all-AJA 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earned more decorations than any other regiment of its size.) Burns’s passionate and persuasive words helped spare most of Hawai‘i’s Japanese from the harsh measures their mainland counterparts suffered.

In 1962, Burns was elected governor of the State of Hawai‘i, an office he held until 1974. Those, too, were turbulent times. Nationally, Americans were bitterly divided over the Vietnam War; and in our young state, residents argued over issues of autonomy and the economy. In 1970, Pan Am began regular flights to Honolulu, its jumbo jets bringing thousands of tourists. Longtime residents feared that Hawai‘i would never be the same. At that critical juncture, Gov. Burns called for a convention, “Hawai‘i in the Year 2000,” to help determine the state’s future. More than 700 citizens took part, vehemently debating such issues as development versus the environment, and urbanization versus indigenous culture.

In the midst of this fervor, one woman took the floor and stunned the delegates by speaking softly on the meaning of aloha — something, she said, they had forgotten.

Born and raised on Maui, Pilahi Paki was a linguist, a teacher, and a respected spiritual leader. “In the next millennium,” she told the delegates, “the world will turn to Hawai‘i in its search for world peace because Hawai‘i has the key . . . and that key is aloha.” So profoundly did Paki’s speech move the delegates that her words later became law: Hawai‘i Revised  Statute 5-7.5. The aloha spirit, encompassing such values as humility, generosity, compassion, and love, “was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians,” said Paki, “and [a] gift to the people of Hawai’i.”

The statute describes aloha as a life force, and calls upon our elected officials to bring consideration of the aloha spirit into their decision-making process.

Perhaps it’s helpful to remember that we’ve been at similar crossroads before. And if we stop the din of rhetoric just long enough to listen, we may hear a small yet clear voice that brings us back to what is essential and true: we need to care for and respect each other. In Hawai‘i, it’s called aloha. And it’s the law.

Words are powerful. Let ours be heard — with aloha.

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