In 2011, a video of a kid speechifying after learning to ride a bike went viral. His dad “interviewed” him after his accomplishment, asking him whether he had any “words of wisdom” for all the other kids who wanted to ride a bike.
“Thumbs up everybody…for rock ‘n roll!” à la the rock group KTN (Kill the Noise) the little boy says, and the world laughed. The video above is the “Original,” according to the YouTube posting. Copies and parodies proliferated for a while.
I thought on all the sometimes-marvelous, oftentimes moving sermons and speeches and lectures and blogs and videos and books and courses and such put out by assorted and varied people.
It seems to me that if you know how to play with words, work your voice, and move your body with conviction and sincerity radiating out of your every pore, it’s not that hard to come up with stuff that at least gets people on their feet and cheering, rarin’ to go off and conquer the world. There are even courses that will teach you how to induce that effect on other people, and on yourself, I suppose.
The problem is the word-induced enthusiasms and zeal sort of fade away when those people in the audience go back to their ordinary, regular lives.
The fervor and the fire dies down, drowning in the wake of the unending same-old. The audience members come down off the high and it all turns to meh again.
Wisdom words seem to have a short shelf life.
The viral video made us laugh at ourselves because we know that space, all of us.
IF YOU REALLY WANT TO INSPIRE “THE MASSES”
Master Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson once said, “What is respected by the masses is action; you can inspire someone for a day with your words, but you can inspire someone for a lifetime by what you do.”
And that’s a truth. Thompson lives it.
He is famed as the first Native Hawaiian in 600 years to practice the ancient Hawaiian art of navigation on long distance ocean voyages using only the stars, the wind and the waves, the flight of birds and the power of focused intent.
It has been his life-work to guide the Hōkūle’a, (“Star of Gladness” or Arcturus), a modern-day iteration of the double-hulled sailing canoes used by the ancients to sail across the Paciific.
Nainoa has also helped to further the work of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a nonprofit research and education organization that grew out of the effort to build the canoe and to sail her.
[For more information about the Polynesian Voyaging Society, click on the button below.]
The society has developed many ways to explore the deeper meanings of voyaging and wayfinding and they continue to reconnect the island peoples of Oceania with the old ways, with each other, and with the world. In their growing, they’ve helped to revitalize a number of cultural practices that hold great meaning and mana for the ones who live it.
These practices include art, language, music, dance, ways of thinking and ways of cooperation that are a counter to the homogenizing and narrowing effects of our post-modern dependence on machines and straight-line thinking.
OF COURSE THERE IS A BOOK….
There’s a book, HAWAIKI RISING: Hōkūle’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Resistance by Sam Low, a photographer and film-maker who documented the origin tale as it happened.
The book tells the story of the vessel’s making and her first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976. It captures the images of the people who made her and sailed her.
The saga is a remarkable tale of high adventure and great derring-do, a chronicle of the beginnings of one of the sparks that ignited the rebirth of a culture and a people that was languishing in defeat and despair.
(The author also made an award-winning film, “The Navigators – Pathfinders of the Pacific”.)
In 1978, the Hōkūle’a embarked from Oahu’s Magic Island, once again headed toward Tahiti on another cultural expedition. This time the dream was to have a Hawaiian navigate the canoe on the trip to Tahiti.
The canoe capsized in treacherous seas outside the Hawaiian islands and the crew spent the night adrift. Eddie Aikau, an internationally acclaimed surfer and waterman, who was a member of the crew, set off on his surfboard to find help. He was never seen again.
The crew was rescued, but the loss of Eddie which was compounded by the departure of their teacher, master navigator Mau Piailug, left the leadership of the voyaging group in disarray. (Mau had returned to his home, disgusted at the contentious infighting and lack of consensus among the Hawaiians, before the trip began.)
Nainoa’s father and other leaders in the Hawaiian community helped the young people work through their disheartenment.
The old guys, who were experienced group leaders, told the younger ones that they had not “earned” the trip. They had not learned enough of what they needed to know to make the run.
Any great endeavor requires extraordinary preparation and forethought and a great deal of hard work. Until you’ve done the work and developed the backlog of skills that you need to deal with the inevitable emergencies, you are likely to meet with failure.
The elders spoke from experience gained over lifetimes of trying and failing and trying again. With the sharing of their life-knowledge they helped to foster the understanding that there could be a deeper purpose for the voyaging than just playing around and having a good time on the open sea.
Thompson went to Micronesia to bring Mau back.
The group learned. Thompson learned. They earned that trip to Tahiti and then planned and worked and did others. They continued to venture out on voyages throughout the Pacific, to build their community, and to build canoes. They kept extending the circle of connection outward.
AN ICON RIDING THE WAVES THROUGH TIME
Hōkūle’a, which was designed by artist and historian Herb Kawainui Kane, has become a symbol of the ancient indigenous arts of wayfinding and sailing off into the unknown and for the power of human connection and cooperation.
Other canoes have since been built, but she was the start.
Her greatest voyage was a three-year circumnavigation of the earth that began in March, 2014. Hōkūle’a docked at 150 ports, stopping in 23 countries including Tahiti, Brazil, South Africa and Cuba and came home in June, 2017. The world watched. The children learned.
An interesting thing: The around-the-world voyage began with many of the oldest surviving members of the past canoe crews who had a hand in sailing the vessel over the years of going out and then returning. The crew that brought her home were from among the best and newest voyagers who had been trained by their elders.
And the procession continues, from the old ones to the young ones, from the past to the future.
THE POWER OF REMEMBERING YOUR TEACHERS
In 2015, as Hōkūle’a was making the world-encircling voyage, PBS Hawaii’s Leslie Wilcox presented an episode in their “Long Story Short” series that featured Wilcox’s interview of Nainoa Thompson.
The talk-story meanders through Thompson’s life and includes his childhood and his history with wayfaring and the cultural renaissance of the Hawaiian people, touching on turning points and highlights of his life-journey.
It elucidates Nainoa’s thoughts on how one develops into a worthy leader, the importance of building community, and the value of teachers and mentors in this process.
Even more importantly, Nainoa explains how he continues to live his life based on the “culture of values” into which he was born.
Here’s the YouTube video of the interview:
About halfway through the video, Thompson talks about the time when he was appointed by the Hawaii Probate Court, in the year 2000, to serve as one of the five trustees for the Bishop Estate, the largest private property owner in the state of Hawaii. The trust, established by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s will, funds the Kamehameha Schools, a private school system in the state that the princess founded.
Nainoa’s appointment as a trustee came at a time when the trust was rocked by a scandal centered around gross mismanagement that jeopardized the future of the schools. The previous board had been dismissed and Thompson was one of the replacement trustees, recommended by many community leaders.
Nainoa said that he felt absolutely inadequate for the job at hand. He was a fisherman, he said.
“…I didn’t feel like I had the tools, I didn’t have the background. But you were asked; right? You were asked to do this.”
Maybe it’s a Hawaiian “thing” – one of those values that are a given: When your community asks you to do something because they believe that you are the one who can help, then you have to respond to that trust and say yes. Once you do that, you have obligated yourself to try to do the best you know how and to learn how to do better than you already know.
Thompson tells how he countered his own self-doubt during that time by having his assistant hang in his office pictures of all of his life-teachers, those who he defined as “leaders that navigated” – the ones who had set the course for him for his whole life. There were more than sixty pictures on the walls of the room.
The pictures included Pius Mau Piailug, one of the last traditional navigators from Micronesia; Thompson’s father Myron “Pinky” Thompson; NASA Space Shuttle astronaut and teacher Charles Lacy Veach; and waterman Eddie Aikau.
Whenever he faced uncertainty and overwhelming pressure to make some complex decision that involved balancing the often-conflicting needs of the people involved in an issue or situation, Nainoa would take a time-out and go sit in the room, surrounded by his teachers. He would remember their stories, how they acted, how they thought, and the way they lived. He would ponder on what they would do in the situation he was facing.
Their ways of walking became the foundation for building and developing his own.
He says, “…that was the smartest thing I ever did, was to get all my teachers and my leaders in the room with me, and I could sit with them in counsel by myself. Then, go back inside and deal with the rough decisions that you’re never, ever feeling that it’s one hundred percent the correct thing to do….”
At one point in the interview, he calls the fear of moving forward into ambiguity and uncertainty and taking the next action his “best friend.”
Thompson likens that fear to a door you don’t want to open– the one that requires you to be honest about all of your inadequacies and your-less-than-perfect self and to go on anyhow.
For that lesson, he credits his friend, Eddie Aikau, the big-wave surfer who always would go, who always wanted to take action: “Eddie said, Open the door.”
Nainoa kept that thought with him as he continued to help to build a legacy for the ones who followed after him.
Once his term as a Bishop Estate trustee ended, Thompson went back to the sea.
The voyages and the wayfinding continues still.
As a writer and a poet, I am very much aware of the power (and the limitations) of words. I do know that one elegant and beautiful way of walking through the world is more valuable than all the words and words and words that are meant to move the hearts around you.
It’s a good thing to remember when you are working towards some dream or other. It really does not matter whether the walker becomes famous or remains obscure. It’s glorious to succeed, but what are you succeeding at?
It seems to me that what is important is whether the way the walker walks helps to make the world a better place for everybody else.
It’s probably the most effective way to make friends and influence people as well.
Here’s a poem….
Wisdom is simple, they tell me.
It’s just hard to walk easy like that.
Wisdom doesn’t make things or break things.
Wisdom just knows when to move,
When to be still.
And if you follow wisdom,
Maybe so will you.
You make this turn, not that.
You dance a jig and spin a spin,
And, sometimes, that’s wisdom.
You talk, you shout,
You stare, you glare,
You take a dare,
You throw it all down
On one roll of the dice,
Or walk away, whistling.
And, sometimes, that’s wisdom.
You look and see what’s really there,
Join in the spectator crowd,
Or maybe hide your head in the sand,
Or you pull out some ‘scope –
And, sometimes, that’s wisdom.
You play or not,
You pass or plot
Or maybe you cheat at cards.
You take a stand,
Gather a band,
Or run like hell’s coming after.
And, sometimes, that’s wisdom.
The trick of it all is in knowing when
And you really can’t buy that
From some magic man.
Time’s what you need
And stepping real slow…
And, always, always, that is wisdom.
By Netta Kanoho
Header Picture credit: “A Place In the Sun” by Chie Gondo in Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
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