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The State of Aloha

The coronavirus has spread across the earth. Political leaders of all stripes and ideologies have declared their nations, states, and cities closed. Experts urge us to practice disciplined “social distancing,” handwashing and staying home.

This week we saw a cascade of orders from the institutions that make up our society. The Judiciary issued a series of aptly titled emergency orders limiting the number of people in courtrooms, the kinds of cases that will be heard, and what will be scuttled and continued to another day (or month).

Another big announcement came from Gov. David Ige. On Tuesday, he urged tourists — the lifeblood of our state’s economy for the last 50 years –to stay where they are and reconsider their vacations to Hawaii. What a shock!

No crisis compelled Hawaii’s leaders to tell tourists, who spend thousands of dollars to fly out here and stay in hotels, eat at our restaurants, and buy things at our shops, to stay home. It’s truly a remarkable feat. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 didn’t prompt our leaders to say such a thing. Diseases like the H1N1 virus or swine flu didn’t sway anyone to stem the tide of visitors to the islands.

The media, both online and on television, are urging all Americans to stay at home and isolate themselves. If you do need to go out, be careful and don’t get too close to anyone. That makes what was once normal downright harrowing at times.

The courthouse in Wailuku, a place that has been part of my life for more than 10 years, feels alien and strange. People keep their distance. No one wants to be around each other.

Grocery stores feel even more strange. The bare spots on shelves and signs limiting shoppers to a single bag of rice are reminders that these are strange and unprecedented times. Nobody seems to know what’s going to happen.

How will we get through this?

The coronavirus pandemic is both a public health and a personal challenge. Experts tell us that the majority of those who will contract the virus will survive, but the virus discriminates. Our elderly — parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunties — and those with preexisting health conditions can get extremely sick and die. For the majority who are less likely at risk, it is the ultimate test of altruism.

How can we do it? It may sound cheesy to some, but now and more than ever we need aloha.

Sure, we tell tourists that the word means hello, goodbye, and love — kind of like the Hawaiian equivalent of shalom. But the tourists are gone now. What exactly does aloha mean to us?

Mary Kawena Pukui, the great scholar of Hawaiian culture and language in the 20th century, and Samuel H. Elbert have a lengthy definition for the word:

“Aloha, love, affection, compassion, mercy, sympathy, pity, kindness, sentiment, grace, charity; greeting, salutation, regards; sweetheart, lover, loved one; beloved, loving, kind, compassionate, charitable, lovable; to love, be fond of; to show kindness, mercy, pity, charity, affection; to venerate; to remember with affection; to greet, hail.”

But even that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of aloha. It’s an incredibly important concept in Hawaiian culture. It is less of a single word and more of a moral code or way of conducting oneself towards others.

Historian and scholar Davianna Pomaika’i McGregor once theorized that the concept of aloha grew out of necessity among Hawaiians. We are in one of the most isolated places on the planet. Island resources are limited. It is only natural that the first inhabitants of these islands founded a culture and philosophy based on mutual dependence, respect and working together.

In the 1970s during the Hawaiian Renaissance, aloha meant more than a greeting belted out at luaus and ABC stores. (If you pronounce the word by extending the “o” so it sounds like “aloooooha!” you’re doing it wrong.) In 1986, this newly revised meaning resulted in one of the most peculiar statutes ever promulgated.

Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 5-7.5 explains the aloha spirit. It “is more than a word of greeting or farewell or a salutation. ‘Aloha’ means mutual regard and affection and extends warmth in caring with no obligation in return.” It is “the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence.”

Aloha “was the working philosophy of Native Hawaiians and was presented as a gift to the people of Hawaii.” We need to use that gift right now.

Social distancing, isolation, and other difficulties are a challenge posed on nearly every person on this planet. Thankfully in Hawaii there’s aloha. And with it, we can rise to meet this challenge.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”