The Aloha Spirit
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
I am lucky that one of my favorite people happens to also be a member of my family. Manuela (or Emma, as we affectionately call her) married my husband's brother over a decade ago. We have bonded over too much wine, too many discussions about grammatical errors in books we are reading, and far too many conversations about the crazy Levitts that we are still happy to call our own. I asked her to write this post with the hope that as we jet off to Hawaii to visit her next week, we will all have a better understanding of the aloha spirit and how valuable it can be, especially now. Emma Levitt is your guest blogger for this week. Enjoy!
If you were raised “right” you might have been told a thousand times to be kind to others, to be gracious to all, and to extend good faith to your fellow man…however annoying the opposing child on the playground. Rather than being a set of good principles, what if that was the law of the land? In Hawaii, it is.
The Law of The Aloha Spirit codifies that indescribable sense of affectionate community that any traveler, tourist, or local can feel but will struggle to tightly define. Long before Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, the working philosophy of the land was built on the warmth, charisma, and brotherhood of dozens of cultures and peoples working together on a handful of isolated islands. The statute defines the Aloha Spirit as “the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self; each person must think and emote good feelings to others.”
The law, as with so many other oddballs that are on the books in every U.S. municipality, could easily be ignored. Yet sometimes a way of life becomes law, not the other way around. And aloha is a lifestyle.
It means that four lanes of traffic will stop to let a bare-footed beach-goer cross the street without having to wait for a break in traffic. It means that the person in front of you at the grocery store will give you his unused store voucher for the week, saving you $11 on frozen burgers. It means that any family friend or revered elder is addressed as Auntie and Uncle, because in the end we are all one human family and that deserves respect. It even extends to the wild chickens by the traffic lights in each town, who are left to live their best lives without bother.
After living in Hawaii for the past two years, I am downright spoiled by aloha. Having grown up in New Jersey, with its sharp elbow attitudes and mob-light approach to things, the aloha spirit was difficult to buy into. At first, it felt cloyingly sweet, like everyone was on their best behavior but it couldn’t possibly hold up for long. As the months passed, the pleasant people all around me just kept at it. Easy smiles are exchanged when walking on the beach. Bike riders are revered on the neighborhood streets. Photos of particularly nice sunsets are shared on Nextdoor as a rule of thumb. Littering is so rare that I’ve commented on it after a day of walking all around town. I don’t think anyone even knows where their car horn is located.
My neighbors have collectively chuckled at my awe at this concept, so plainly experienced daily. “What do you expect? We live in paradise!”
Yes, all is well when all is well. Of course, then came 2020.
It now often feels as though the distance to the mainland matters. Not in terms of time zones or miles, but in actions and reactions. Being 2500 miles from California suddenly gave Hawaii the benefit of shutting down tourism, slowing the movement of people from out of state, out of country, even between each county. The shutdown was swift and hard; after all, with 120 ICU beds total, we couldn’t drive patients to the next state over so easily.
The economy, so dependent on tourism and hospitality, tanked. For so many people working in hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, it was incredibly difficult to see the world just stop like that. The heartwarming stories from last spring and summer may not be unique to Hawaii – and I truly hope they aren’t – but the expectation that folks would take care of each other…that expectation might be unique in our otherwise individualistic society. Restaurants donated all food on hand to food pantries, and many kept paying the bills for months even though doors were closed and those supplies would go to shelters and non-profits. Little Lending Libraries became micro-loans of canned food and board games, to feed both body and soul. Nobody dared to sneak into grocery stores in the early hours of the morning set aside for seniors. Puzzle swapping became the hottest bartering trend in a generation, with handwritten notes included in the box.
But as months ticked by, more of my friends and neighbors and local grocery clerks marveled about the violence “in America” over mask mandates. To wear a mask is to care for the person in front of you, period. It is Aloha 101, freshman year stuff. Most of us know aloha to mean hello and goodbye, yet it is so much more than merely the Hawaiian word for a salutation. Imbued within that short five letter word (an acrostic, see below) are the kindness, unity, pleasantness, humility, and patience that the spirit consists of. To live with the Spirit of Aloha means to extend warm regards to someone else, just because. Just because they are your neighbor, five blocks or five miles over. Just because you pass them on your morning walk, or in the Costco aisle. Just because they are in front of you.
Doesn’t that sound nice, dear reader? After the past year, especially, shouldn’t we aim for more good will, given freely, both for ourselves and others around us?
To slow down, connect heart and mind, and live with aloha doesn’t require a long plane ride. You can make it the law of your land. And if you do visit, long after the suntan fades, I hope the Aloha Spirit stays with you.
Akahai-kindness to be expressed with tenderness
Lōkahi-unity, to be expressed with harmony
Oluʻolu-agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness
Haʻahaʻa-humility, to be expressed with modesty
Ahonui-patience, to be expressed with perseverance