Today’s graduating class from Hawai‘i Pacific University can be proud of its diversity – of nationality, ethnicity and opinion. But it may also wish to focus on a commonality that is so ingrained as to be easily forgotten. You have all gained your college education within the bosom of a genuine and authentic island community. Some of you were born in these islands; some of you were born on other islands; and others hail from continents vast and far away. But we are all shaped by our environment, by the aina that sustains us, and this place is more than a cartographic concept of latitude and longitude – it is a deep shaper of souls, and the “H” and the “P” in our “Hawai‘i Pacific University” contain both the concept of “island” and the vastness of “ocean” within them. Together, they have shaped your experience, and who you will become. I speak with a little experience.
I was born on an island – Britain. (Or, Beretania as we sometimes call it here)
I grew up on another island – Aotearoa (New Zealand).
And, today I live in Paradise – the Hawaiian Islands.
And, strangely, they all fly variants of the same flag – the Union Jack is part of all three “national” flags. They share this symbol because they have common shards of a common heritage, which arise across island communities because they are, invariably, both insular by definition and wayfaring by nature. Thus, they share stories and symbols that surprise us. Listen to this one, from Aotearoa, and tell me if it is not familiar to a Hawaiian ear. It is the traditional Maori tale of the great God who raised the land. The God’s name may be familiar. Here’s the storyline.
Maui was a demi-god, who lived in Hawaiiki. He possessed magic powers that not all of his family knew about.
One day when he was very young, he hid in the bottom of his brothers' boat in order to go out fishing with them.
Once out at sea, Maui was discovered by his brothers, but they were not able to take him back to shore as Maui made use of his magic powers, making the shoreline seem much further away than it was in reality.
So the brothers continued rowing, and once they were far out into the ocean Maui dropped his magic fishhook over the side of the waka. After a while he felt a strong tug on the line. This seemed to be too strong a tug to be any ordinary fish, so Maui called to his brothers for assistance.
After much straining and pulling, up suddenly surfaced Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui), known today as the North Island of New Zealand. Maui told his brothers that the Gods might be angry about this, and he asked his brothers to wait while he went to make peace with the Gods.
However, once Maui had gone his brothers began to argue among themselves about the possession of this new land. They took out their weapons and started pounding away at the catch. The blows on the land created the many mountains and valleys of the North Island today.
The South Island is known as Te Waka a Maui (the waka of Maui).
Stewart Island, which lies at the very bottom of New Zealand, is known as Te Punga a Maui (Maui's anchor), as it was the anchor holding Maui's waka as he pulled in the giant fish.
This characteristic of island communities – that they are both insular and outgoing, is why island communities make such fine learning environments. It is not a coincidence that universities have, for centuries, striven to make themselves into islands of learning within their own settings. They place buildings deliberately to create closed quadrangles, they erect surrounding walls with forbidding gates, and they throw up virtual walls of separation to make quiet spaces for removed contemplation. But, there are also natural spaces for this, and for some students these natural spaces are the right spaces. I am regularly asked by guidance counselors and others, what type of student does well at HPU? Here’s what I answer.
“I have found it to be someone who likes to belong to a group but who can and will head off alone to experience something new and challenging, and still enjoy coming back to the group to share the experience. An adventurous soul with a communal spirit.”
In literature, we find islands are typically portrayed as either lost paradises where reflection and contemplation arise, or as places where physical boundaries of survival are tested to their limits, or as places where laws break down and the bounds of morality are strained. Paradise Island; Lord of The Flies; Robinson Crusoe; Atlantis; Jurassic Park; The Island of Dr. Moreau; Treasure Island – the examples are almost boundless. But, the common thread is the island setting as a site for the spiritual, emotional and psychological transformation of character – this goes all the way back to the Homeric poems. An astute but obscure Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Massachusetts recounts the typical stages of development of the island character story, and I ask today’s graduates to think about these stages of development, and how many of these are recognizable from their own last few years at HPU.
· Removal to a remote island
· Awakening to and taking stock of strange surroundings (even for locals, the “U” in “HPU” is a strange surrounding, and a world of strange ideas and new people with strange ideas)
· Initial setbacks followed by increasing adaptation
· Spiritual, emotional or psychological growth due specifically to island experiences
· A climactic event which challenges growth and feelings of wholeness
· Return to the home society in a much-altered state.
The island provides an ideal setting for a transformative personal experience because it is a place of concentrated experience with limited room and forms of escape. But, the very insularity that provides the inner peace for a truly reflective learning environment also fosters a restive spirit that emerges in island communities in the form of a wayfaring urge. There is a dialectic at work that creates a stronger soul from the going out and coming back than from the simply staying home. We see it in the voyages of today’s Polynesian Navigators, in Hokulea’s seafaring worldwide aloha voyage. They sail like a wound-up spring, energized by their time on the aina, and ready again to explore and give aloha. They are like the HPU student venturing outward from the group, giving to the world as they go.
From each of the island peoples I have known I have learned much. From the Britons, I learned much about what they called “Propriety.” They are a “proper” people, a people of laws, famed for the legal structures they have created. Living in tight island spaces teaches us the advantages of a system of voluntarily and communally adopted constraints that range from an informal system of manners to a historically maintained system of precedent-based laws. In Hawai‘i, we might refer to this skill area as “Pono.”
In Aotearoa, I learned to live on and from the land. I learned that a land that had risen from the sea had a proclivity to return to it easily, and land conservation had to be taken seriously. Rivers and streams could sweep away mountains if farming practices were lax. I learned that the land could be both kind and hard – that it would provide sustenance but earthquakes would topple whole cities which we thought immutable, such as Christchurch. In Hawai‘i, we might refer to this as learning “Kuleana.”
In Hawai‘i, I have learned the importance of “the people.” That we stand and fall together. That a liberal education as defined in the western tradition places great and proper emphasis on the art of persuasion, or rhetoric, which we know as the greatest single skill we will need in the workplace. We work hard to give you, our students, the skills in writing and speaking, in presenting your ideas in clear and consistent fashion so you will be persuasive. So that, as a nurse you will persuade people to follow their health regimen; as a teacher you will persuade your students to learn for their own sake; as a business owner you will persuade people of the worth of your products; as a scientist you will persuade people of the scientific merit of your findings. But from Hawai‘i, we learn that the first thing before beginning to persuade is to listen and love, and that means to practice “Aloha” first.
When you put these things together, you have the essential ingredients of an HPU education. In a nutshell, HPU’s double trilogy is:
Hawai‘i, Pacific and University
Pono, Kuleana and Aloha
The islands of Hawai‘i are your hearth and your fire. The Pacific Ocean is your wayfaring field for exploration and growth. The trials, tribulations and tests you have conquered to be here this day have given you the courage to face all future tests. You have been through the gates of removal, awakening, setback, growth, achievement, wholeness and maturation. Now, like a beating heart that must both contract and expand to live and work, you must live within and go forth from your islands to best serve your community. Your fate is to serve and you must be both insular for your own inner strength and wayfaring for the future growth and development of your own world. I ask you to remember the words of the poet, John Donne:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
But it’s not a bell of sadness. It’s a bell that calls across the ocean. It’s a bell that would have taken Ulysses to Penelope; or the great waka, Aotea, from Hawaiiki to Aotearoa; it’s a bell that Hokulea’s crew hears in the morning light off the coast of South Africa and will bring her home to Hawai‘i. That same bell rings for you today.