Hawaii’s Gift to the Nation…Barack Obama
Fifty years ago Hawaii became our fiftieth state. And in something of a role reversal, as if to mark the occasion, the state has given the nation a very special gift—our first Hawaiian-born president.
“What’s best in me, and what’s best in my message, is consistent with the tradition of Hawaii,” President Obama has said. In a 1999 essay published in the Punahou Bulletin, the alumni magazine of his high school alma mater, he wrote, “I realize how truly lucky I was to have been raised there…Hawaii’s spirit of tolerance might not have been perfect, but it was—and is—real. The opportunity that Hawaii offered to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values I hold most dear.”
One of the many wonderful things about our new President is his deep respect for the power of words and his sensitivity to the rich complexity and beauty of their meaning. As we look for ways, both as individuals and as a nation, to join with him in creating a “new era of responsibility,” three words central to traditional Hawaiian values could help lead the way.
The first word, aloha, is more widely recognized than truly understood. Used as a word of greeting, it is more accurately, but still inadequately, often translated as “love.” A fuller sense of the meaning of this powerfully encompassing word is given in the words of the “Aloha Law,” an actual state law: “Aloha means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return,” the statute explains. That’s not so different than similar injunctions in cultures and religions around the world—but somehow, in Hawaii, it seems to be practiced with somewhat greater consistency and frequency. The effect on everyday life can be—and often is—transformative.
“Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono,” the Hawaiian state motto, is generally translated “The life of the land is preserved in righteousness.” The word pono, here translated as “righteousness,” can also mean “morality,” “right action,” or simply “goodness.” It expresses an ancient Hawaiian belief in the crucial importance of aloha aina, love of the land, and contains the important implication that love also requires respectful, responsible, and just action.
Finally, ohana means family. And—as anyone familiar with the story of Lilo and Stitch knows—“family means no one is left behind.” We have heard some of these words before: unfortunately, many of us have been left feeling somewhat cynical about them.
The Hawaiian concept of family is extremely broad and inclusive, and anything but cynical. It is a large part of the reason why visitors from around the world find themselves almost incredulous at the genuine, sincere, and warm welcome and kind treatment they receive from locals the minute they arrive in the islands.
If, as traditional Hawaiian values also teach, we are all one human family, surely the path that will lead us into a new era of responsibility is clear. For we all know on some level the right way to treat one another and the earth. We all know how to live in such a way that pono is upheld. We just have to do it.
Although Elizabeth Alexander, the poet chosen to write a poem for President Obama’s inauguration is not Hawaiian, one line in particular from her “Praise Song for the Day” perfectly captures the spirit and true meaning of aloha.
“What if the mightiest word is love?” she asked us all to consider on that very special, very cold day in January, a day that nonetheless filled hearts around the world with warmth and hope. “Love beyond marital, filial, national/ Love that casts a widening pool of light…”
“I try to explain to them about the aloha spirit,” candidate Obama said to a gathering of fellow Hawaiians in a speech he made there last August. “And it’s that spirit that I am absolutely convinced is what America is looking for right now.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we found it—and then held onto it, and shared it, our gift to the world?
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.