While I was grocery shopping recently, standing in the cashier’s line with six other shoppers, the woman at the head of the line accidentally tipped her purse and it started raining coins all over the floor in a 15 foot radius. The look on her face was one of distress and embarrassment. Then something wonderful happened – all six people in line got on their hands and knees to help pick them up. It was a chicken skin moment for me to witness a random act of aloha being committed by six people without a second thought. Only in Hawaiʻi is a scene like this not only likely but commonplace behavior. Random acts of aloha are acted out every day by thousands of local people who didn’t have to go to school to learn the behavior.
The most amazing thing about aloha is if you ask 20 people what it means you will get 20 different answers. The Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian dictionary devotes a quarter page trying to explain it. Alo is to be in one’s presence. Ha is the breath of life. Aloha is an exchange of life’s breath, accepting responsibility for each others’ well being and safety. It is an unconditional extension of love, trust, and friendship. Whatever the object of aloha – whether a person, a place, an animal, a community, nature (aloha ‘āina) – it is a commitment to take responsibility for that to which we extend our aloha. Aloha is a particularly magnanimous cultural act as a personal greeting that is routinely extended to others which sets aside personal boundaries and welcomes the receiver into one’s personal space.
Aloha is fundamental to Hawaiʻi’s community psyche and acted out routinely in thousands of acts of kindness, tolerance, understanding, and benevolence. Aloha is innate to the Hawaiian condition. Aloha is the one value that we all share, the one thing that transcends our cultural differences, the one thing that we cherish, and most important, the one thing that most of us act out without having to think about it. Aloha is imbedded in our DNA. Aloha is recognized by people living in the remotest parts of the earth.
Aloha is also a call to action, a behavioral belief system that requires acting out. It’s not enough to put it on a poster to hang on a wall, on a button to hand out at a convention, or as a magnet piece for the refrigerator door. No action – no aloha. I would call on all who read this column to deliberately seek opportunities to turn aloha into a verb. One morning go around the office and say hello to everyone before sitting down to work. Pick up the piece of trash somebody left lying on a sidewalk. Visit a relative or friend in a hospital who didn’t expect you. Say aloha to a friend or family member on the mainland with a card for no reason. Flash a smile at a stranger passing by – you’d be amazed at how this makes a person feel – a simple wordless acknowledgement that recognizes their existence.
Whether it’s in big or small ways always remember that aloha is a verb.