“It’s not that we have a right to life, but rather we have a responsibility for life.”
Several months ago, ‘Iokepa and tall, imposing Tiokasin GhostHorse shared a conversation across the radio waves in New York City, on Tiokasin’s First Voices: Indigenous Radio. This morning, after a particularly intimate and probing gathering, I am remembering the prominent Lakota’s words. I have often said of my commitment to ‘Iokepa, his people, and the fulfillment of this 1,000-year-old Hawaiian prophecy, “I didn’t choose this life, as I’ve chosen so many things in my life (my jobs, vacation spots, and presidential candidates). This life chose me.”
Among Native Hawaiians, to claim destiny is not to relinquish responsibility; it is, on the contrary, to claim full responsibility for the life each of us agreed to at birth. Those destined to be fishermen (or women) fished. Those destined to work in the kalo fields grew food. Those born to cut timber off the mountain did. Those born to sit under the coconut tree each day and meditate, sat without judgment. Though a child’s name (a gift of the ancestors) implied, in metaphor, his destiny, it was his or her life’s work to imagine it, and then fulfill it.
We moderns should only be so lucky – a name to instruct us. Nevertheless, our task remains the same. ‘Iokepa insists: Each of us “made promises” when we took on human life. Each of us was armed with particular gifts to support the fulfillment of these promises. Like the Hawaiian child who carried the key to his life’s purpose locked in a set of words that were his name (a set of words that could have dozens of possible different meanings), it remains our life’s work to imagine and then fulfill our destiny. No one can do it for us.
That question surfaced around the dinner table last night with a dozen attractive, successful strangers: physicist, psychologist, writer, mediator, massage therapist, musician and artist.
“F…k spiritual teachers!” a tall and spindly, very accomplished artist blurted out over our beet soup. Apparently she had spent some years bent at the knee to one. “Have you outgrown your need for a teacher?” I asked, as tactfully as I could manage.
“She outgrew her need for them the day she was born!” the psychologist, spoon in hand, leaped in to make the point.
From the moment I met ‘Iokepa, he has consistently asserted: “I’m not a teacher.”
I have heard him repeat, more regularly than we now accumulate miles on the odometer of our Camry: “I don’t have your answers. They come in many ways. Ask…get quiet…and listen. You’ll get used to feeling the answer.”
There are 160 words for the wind in Hawaiian, 138 words for the rain. Each one is the answer to a prayer. The indigenous peoples came to recognize those subtle differences – their lives depended on it.
But not only do the answers arrive in the wind in our face, they also come from a book that falls off the shelf – or from the words we overhear in a random conversation. We get used to feeling the answers.
As ‘Iokepa says, no one can dictate our direction; no one can speak for our unique destiny; no one can “respond to that responsibility” for us. We are born with the answers. Our noisy, demanding modern world can quash our ‘ike hānau – our birth knowledge – but it remains inscribed in our cellular structure. All manner of loving ancestors are present, to remind and support us in our task.
Then – when, from the quiet chambers of our deep knowing, we recognize (hear, see, smell, taste, or feel) what had been ours for the picking – we are compelled to say an unequivocal “Yes!” to it. That, too, is our responsibility.
And finally, ‘Iokepa’s people remind us, like the gentlest of mothers, to say, “thank you” out loud. From their gratitude was born ritual.