The word that says it all
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“In the new millennium, the world will turn to Hawai’i in its search for world peace because Hawai’i has the key…and that key is aloha,” Pilahi Paki declared prophetically in 1970. At the futuristic Governor’s Conference on the Year 2000 held in Honolulu, this Hawaiian woman in a red-and-white muumuu bravely faced the international audience and shared her definition of aloha. A Hawaiian language teacher and cultural consultant, Paki, a native of Maui, cut through the political and academic rhetoric with the wisdom of her ancestors. She described aloha as “the coordination of mind and heart.” She said it was not just a word, but the working philosophy of her Hawaiian ancestors, who bequeathed to her the following definition:

            A stands for akahai, meaning kindness, to be expressed with tenderness.
            L stands for lokahi, meaning unity, to be expressed with harmony.
            O stands for ‘olu’olu, meaning agreeable, to expressed with pleasantness.
            H stands for ha’aha’a, meaning humility, to be expressed with modesty.
            A stands for ahonui, meaning patience, to be expressed with perseverance.
          One year after Pilahi Paki died, in 1985, her words were officially adopted by the Hawai'i State Legislature as the “aloha spirit law,” Hawai’i Revised Statutes 5-7.5.
          Paki’s words are especially insightful in light of the 2008 election. In the run-up to his victory, at an August 2008 rally at Ke’ehi Lagoon in Honolulu, Barack Obama spoke of the aloha spirit and how it shaped him. “It’s that we look out for one another,” he told his supporters. “It’s that we deal with each other with courtesy and respect. It’s about the power and strength of diversity…That spirit, I’m absolutely convinced, is what America is looking for right now.” Sound familiar? Even the New York Times, in an uncharacteristically gushy December 25 article (“Obama’s Zen State, Well, It’s Hawaiian”), described Obama’s mood as the embodiment of the aloha spirit, “a peaceful state of mind and a friendly attitude of acceptance of a variety of ideas and cultures.”
          Aloha is nothing if not lived and practiced, and Hawaiian elders like Pilahi Paki and Nana Veary, who would have been 100 years old last year, knew this. Those who think aloha is nothing more than a canned greeting from tour guides or a simplistic term for welcome and good-bye are either at the receiving end of fake aloha or are missing the point. In her book, Change We Must, the pure Hawaiian Nana Veary wrote, “Alo means the bosom, the center of the universe. Ha is the breath of God. The word is imbued with a great deal of power. I do not use the word casually.” She said that words have power and thoughts are things, and when she hugged you—she hugged everyone she met—the power of her unconditional acceptance could reduce even the most uptight, resistant person to tears.
          I miss Nana and Pilahi Paki. I wonder how they would view our current global challenges, how they would put their understanding into action in the wake of such frightening economic conditions. While we await, with breathless anticipation, the latest pronouncements of the architects of our future, I think of the legacy of our Hawaiian elders. They used no fancy words, no soaring statistics. Their prediction—that aloha would be the key to planetary survival—may strike some as grandiose and simplistic, provincial, even, or reductionism at its best. I don’t think our kupuna were saying that aloha spirit does not exist elsewhere—it does—or that equanimity alone will solve our horrendous challenges. They were pointing to change from within as the genesis of external shifts.
          “When assembled, the small pieces would explain the whole,” wrote John Holland. The “small pieces”—a helping hand, the criminally inflated CEO bonuses, greed and misjudgment, one small act of aloha—add up, good and bad, to the warp and weft of our culture, the tabula before the rasa. We know that it takes a lot more than a loving hug to erase the pervasive sickness of dread in the national psyche. We know that the aloha spirit is not a panacea, nor does it solve the weighty challenges of governing in this beleaguered economy. But a good dose of our kupuna’s prescription will go a long way toward healing us. Like a loving massage for the patient in ICU, a thoughtful look backward can be a sprint forward, at least on the comfort scale. With what lies ahead, we all need as much aloha as we can get.
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