Don’t Huli the Boat: My Response to a Friend’s Sadness.

Paddles Up!

Above, the 2005 Poi Pu Challenge winning team. My Wahine is #4

A good friend who once lived on the island of Kauai, as my wife and I did, recently sent an E-mail bemoaning the current state of the U.S. She’s sad and disheartened by America’s tensions and divisions, and our too common ad hominem attacks among our fellow Americans. Much of this conflict stems from the current social situation, and is further stoked from ashes into consuming fire by the current occupant of the White House. Here’s a link to the article my friend cited as the reason for her sadness. And here is my response to the article, and to her.

S, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts this way, it isn’t easy to navigate today’s terrain. These are trying times indeed, especially when attempting to interact with people, some of whom we’ve known all our lives, yet now have serious disagreements with. Those ‘times for divorce‘ you mention are very painful, but they’re necessary for our own equilibrium, and for maintaining a sense of who we are. It’s especially painful when those we must leave behind are people we thought we knew very well, people we’ve loved because of who we thought they were.

I doubt that America will split over the division and chaos we’re going through just now, but my doubt is based more on practical and logistical issues than otherwise. I simply don’t see how such a ‘split’ could come about. Sadly, my doubt isn’t based on an optimistic assumption that we’ll come together in love, or compassion, or shared understanding. We’ll just once again learn to live with each other, stifle our various differences, and go on. Our addiction to social media drives a lot of this division, so maybe we need to seek a twelve-step program, a kind of Facebook & Twitter addiction cleansing or its equivalent.

When I look at the ‘other side’—for me that is those who support the individual in the White House—the most prominent characteristic I see is their seething anger. Those folks with their silly red MAGA caps always exhibit a ravenous anger at the ‘other,’ described as anyone who disagrees with them, regardless of how minor the issue. They’re extremely fragile people, folks who gravitate to humanities worst impulses, and who aren’t afraid to outdo each other in showing off those retrograde behaviors. To me they elicit Shakespeare’s quote from Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ I suspect a lot of these MAGA people know how ridiculous and childish their behaviors are. That deep down they don’t truly hate as viciously as they seem to, but they get affirmation from others in their tribe, so they continue. It tells me they have very tedious, circumscribed lives, along with a zero-sum mentality that simply won’t allow the concept of a world of abundance. If someone else wins, they must lose, and vice versa. I can easily see why my friend is sad.

During our too short residence on Kauai, my wife and I saw a lot of the same issues, a tension between locals and the haoles, sharp disagreements over issues that involved—and too often offended—Hawaiian sensibilities and those imported from the mainland, and the forced, often brittle harmony that always exists between local people and visitors in a tourist economy.

But we also saw the resolution of those differences. It was clear to us when we arrived on the island that yes, we were haoles, and no, the locals didn’t really want us there, and yes, they had a fine reason for their disdain, and yes, they had to tolerate us. So they lived in harmony with us, and we with them, because we shared that little patch of paradise in the middle of all that water, and we simply had to cooperate to survive and get along. After all, that mossy little rock (Kauai) is just 90 miles around at the shoreline, 25 miles across, and 30 high, so not a lot of room, and it’s occupied by (last I checked), only 70,000 full time residents. Plus, the road doesn’t even connect, so we literally met each other coming and going.

When Mariah and I lived on Kauai we joined an outrigger canoe club on the south shore. As anyone who has lived in Hawaii may know, the local people in those clubs don’t take to the ocean for fun, or to exercise, or to socialize with each other. Ocean outrigger paddling is much more than sport for them; it’s a religion, a way to connect and commune with their ancestors and the sea, and to affirm their affinity for the water. If our number 6 saw us looking up, enjoying the glorious view, and neglecting our stroke, they’d yell at us. It was almost funny how seriously they took it. Of course we never joked about their rigid attitude, or ignored them. And we never dreamed of lashing out at them. Instead, we listened, cooperated, put our heads down, and kept on stroking. If we ever caught a wave the wrong way and hulied the boat, we’d just take to the water, flip it back over, bail it out, get back aboard, and keep going. We even had huli practice on occasion, just so we’d know instinctively what to do when the ama came up and the boat flipped over. In other words, we learned how to survive together.

So here’s a possible solution to our current social difficulties, and a pending American ‘split’. Everyone should be forced to live on Kauai for a short time, to join a paddle club, and to do their huli practice. Both kāne & wahine have to spend enough time there to soak up the island’s beauty and charm, to feel its ‘mana’, while being forced to get along with each other, learning to flip the boat back over—because it’s going to huli from time to time when they catch a wave the wrong way—while stifling whatever political, or social, or ideological differences they might have. Everyone must experience a touch of island fever, a feeling of being trapped in the middle of the vast and often angry ocean, with no way to escape, where cooperation and compliance are not niceties but necessities. A lot like life on the rest of planet earth, in other words.

S, I remain optimistic. Like you, I lived through the disruption and polarization of the 60s, the civil rights era, Vietnam, Watergate and another corrupt, lying, and tone-deaf president, and the various other chaotic times in America. We somehow stayed together then, and I’m guessing we will now. But it is difficult to watch, and even more difficult to see friends and family take sides in such a rigid fashion. It does bring tears to our eyes to see how far apart we are, especially when the sea is so angry, and when we’re threatened with a huli of such epic proportions.

Something else we learned while paddling on Kauai was this: We never approached a wave sideways, but always head on. That approach gave us the best chance to stay upright, to get through the turbulence, and to keep going. So as difficult as these times may be, I believe it would not be proper or useful for us to approach issues at a glance, but directly. As painful as it may be, this is a time for us to truly announce our values, to be who we have always claimed to be, and to disregard the potential outcomes of lost friendship and temporary discomfort.

So I say we get on to Kauai. Let’s get stroking, put our heads down, stay together, hit the waves straight on, and we’ll get back to the beach in good shape to launch another day. My friend, Aloha to you. I say chin up, paddles up! Brighter days lie ahead.

To my readers, Mahalo nui loa for reading my post. Comments welcome.

BTW, in Hawaiian, a ‘Haole’ (How Lee) is a non-native. To ‘Huli’ (Hoolie) means to capsize the boat. The ‘Ama’ is the canoe’s outrigger arm. ‘Kāne’ is a man, ‘Wahine’ a woman. ‘Mana’ is ‘spirit’. ‘Mahalo nui loa’ means thank you very much.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Huli the Boat: My Response to a Friend’s Sadness.

  1. By, I wrote this for a blog of my own before COVID 19, but I think it still holds true, but I have to wonder how much those people with, as you aptly described as having “very tedious, circumscribed lives, along with a zero-sum mentality that … if someone else wins, they must lose, and vice versa” are going to accept the social changes the United States must undergo or perish.

    A House Divided?
    I’ve been both amazed and dismayed by our nation’s seemingly rapid descent into political and social tribalism that threatens our ability to maintain a leadership role on the world stage. We appear to be slipping into a second-class status regarding that role, and our cultural divisions are something that will have profound effects upon our future economic security .
    There are many reasons that might explain the increasing rise of divisiveness among our citizenry, but the probability exists that perhaps this phenomenon is nothing new. The seeming upswing of racism, xenophobia, sexism, religious bigotry, and heterosexism may simply be attitudes that have always been present in our culture and have merely become more prominently displayed in public forums over the past few decades. Still, I can’t help but wonder if a combination of relatively new circumstances has caused those disparate factions of anti-this-or-that groups to create new tribal forms, replete with elected leadership that lends a philosophical legitimacy to their causes.
    The phenomenon known as Dunbar’s number has become a standard in understanding group dynamics relative to homo sapiens’ social structuring. In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that the number of people with whom an individual can maintain stable social relationships (where all members of a group know each other and how they relate to every other person) is limited to 150. In numbers greater than this, populations generally require stronger enforcement of rules, laws, and norms. These enforcement mechanisms center on shared mythologies such as cultural expressions, language, religions, and political identities. They allow people to identify “them” as opposed to “us.”
    Research tends to support Dunbar’s number, the exceptions being online social and communication networks in which the number of participants can reach up to double the person-to-person number. I would suggest that the information revolution, now only a few decades old, is transforming our social tribes as radically as the industrial revolution transformed the world’s economies.
    Dunbar noted that smaller groups are almost always (geographically speaking) physically close. Sociologists and anthropologists observe that as populations become larger, they create mythological identities in order to maintain internal unity. But now, communications technologies have rendered physical distance unimportant, and this means that different and unique methods of social structuring are beginning to take place. People can choose their own tribes without having to be any closer than a computer or cell phone. And with new tribal allegiances come new or redefined mythologies.
    Our American mythology is undergoing the challenge of redefining itself at a pace that no society in human history has seen before. Normally, cultures evolve over periods of time during which the blending and absorption of new ideas and customs are gradually transformed into newer forms. This is rarely a smooth transition during the best of times, and the increase in uncivil behaviors we are now witnessing is a direct result of these rapid alterations to our social fabric. The question we are now being asked is this: Just who, exactly, do we 21st Century Americans want to be in our own story?
    The choice is ours, but if we are to continue our efforts to live up to the ideals expressed in our founding documents, we cannot allow ourselves to become strangers to each other. Instead, we must make greater efforts to find common ground in our understanding of what we have accomplished as a nation so far in order to avoid becoming an increasingly faltering, second class confederacy of angry misanthropes. In the end, our children will have to live with the consequences of how we choose to address this situation now.

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