The wonder of being witness

I was listening to contemporary Hawaiian music on our TV the other day, and the album cover of the track playing showed a Native Hawaiian man, with tribal tattoos and half-tied-back black, wavy hair, standing on a beach smiling at someone off-camera. I was filled with a sense of awe for the remoteness and richness of Hawaiian culture — its history, its stories, its music, its pain, its beauty, its joys, its strength, and above all, its intimate connection to the aīna.

It can be a little strange to be a white person from the Mainland (a haole) living in Hawai’i. I am keenly aware that I don’t really belong here. A long history of injustice and destructive colonialism paved the way for me to be able to move so freely to this stolen land. I try to be careful about what parts of the local and native culture I adopt so that I honor the place and communicate with residents in the way they prefer, but in a way that doesn’t appropriate Native Hawaiian culture for or as my own. Because it’s not. It absolutely is not. It is not mine, it is not for me, it is independent of whatever desires and love (and possibly criticisms?) I feel when approaching it.

And as I let the awe for what I have been able to experience and witness of Native Hawaiian culture warm through me, I thought… how amazing to be able to be a witness to this.

We don’t give a lot of credit to the value of witnesses. American culture has individuals preferring to be the star, to be front and center, to be the one doing the thing. We are so focused on doing that we forget to just be. We forget who we really are, who we really aren’t, and what is worth holding onto with either firm or open hands.

Witnessing is such a wonderful way to return to ourselves through observing the wonder of something decidedly “other.” The world needs witnesses not just to the travesties and injustices, but to the beauties and wonders. I’m not saying Native Hawaiians need me to witness their culture. In fact, in a lot of ways I think Native Hawaiian culture would flourish better without so many white onlookers and grabbers. But witnessing is different from looking-on. It is a stance of awe, of reverence, of recognition of the otherness and the uniqueness of what whatever is being witnessed contains and is. How lucky are we to be able to witness things outside ourselves and our own cultures in order to recognize the breadth and depth of the human (and natural) world?

So I just feel inordinately fortunate to be able to witness, from my closer-but-still-separate position, the richness of the Native Hawaiian culture. I feel lucky to be able to be a witness, specifically as distinct from being a participant. We should all look for ways to be witnesses to the “other” wonders that are always out of our reach but are experienced in full by others. The joy of witnessing is only augmented by whatever pain we may feel from our exclusion.

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