By Diane Haynes Woodburn
“Aloha,” says the cashier as I grab our groceries from the checkout counter. I smile and respond, “Aloha,” as we leave. My friend, who is new to the Islands, is amused. “Does everyone say ‘aloha’ here?” she asks as we cross the parking lot. “Well, yes, a lot,” I say. As we approach my car, I point to the license plate. “You see? It says ‘Aloha State’ right there. In fact,” I say, kidding her, “it’s the law.”
“Really!” she laughs. “Someone ought to tell your politicians.” Her words stop me in my tracks. “You know,” I reply, “someone did—a long time ago.”
As this issue goes to press, the midterm elections are still a few weeks away. We don’t know yet who will be Hawai‘i’s new governor, nor Maui’s new mayor. What we do know is that the country has become increasingly divisive, and the stakes are high. We face big issues—not simply whether the health-care law is repealed, or the economy is revived—but the way we function as a society. Our challenge is not so much whom we elect, but how we elect to solve our problems: whether we continue to engage in strident rhetoric and fear-based tactics, or come together through civil discourse and mutual respect.
A generation ago, the citizens of Hawai‘i faced similar uncertainty. The year was 1970. Our country was divided over the Viet Nam conflict. Our young state was divided over issues of autonomy and the economy. Pan Am had just begun regularly scheduled jumbo jets to Honolulu, bringing thousands of tourists. Hawai‘i, longtime residents feared, would never be the same. At this critical juncture, Governor John S. Burns called for a convention, “Hawai‘i in the Year 2000,” to help determine the state’s future. More than 700 citizens took part, passionately debating such issues as development versus the environment, 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 profound was Pilahi Paki’s influence on the delegates that her words would later become law. In Hawai‘i Revised Statute 5-7.5, Paki elucidates the meaning of aloha by using it as an acronym:
“Akahai, meaning kindness,
to be expressed with tenderness;
“Lokahi, meaning unity,
to be expressed with harmony;
“Olu‘olu, meaning agreeable,
to be expressed with pleasantness;
“Ha‘aha‘a, meaning humility,
to be expressed with modesty;
“Ahonui, meaning patience,
to be expressed with perseverance.
“These are traits of character that express the charm, warmth and sincerity of Hawai‘i’s people. It was the working philosophy of native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawai‘i.”
The law goes on to explain 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 a 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 about each other. In Hawai‘i, it’s called aloha.
I wish you and yours a happy and loving holiday season, and a year filled with aloha.