A handful of lessons on saving the world
March 30, 2023
This piece is part of the Climate notebook, which features art by Katrina Bello.
The following is a commencement address I gave in May 2009 to my fellow graduates of the William S. Richardson School of Law (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa). Halfway through my remarks it began to rain—really hard, but only briefly. Afterward, one of my most beloved elders, Uncle Kekuni Blaisdell, came up to tell me that the rain was a blessing, that my mana (or power) was strong, and that he loved me. I cherish that day for many reasons, but most of all for the twin blessings of rain and elder.
Despite what we’ve been told, the world is not ours for the taking.
Indeed, the world we have inherited comes to us bruised, a tender shard of its former self, having passed clumsily through the well-intentioned hands of our mothers and fathers, seeking a generation it can trust enough, and long enough, to drop its shoulders.
Of the belief that love can save the world, I have a story to tell:
In the old days in the land now known as Guam, when the people lost their connection to their way, when the rains would not come and the people grew wild with hunger, a giant fish determined to destroy Guam began to eat the island widthwise, one giant chunk after another. Day after day, the men of Guam tried to stop it. They pursued it with spears, tried in vain to trap it, to catch it with nets they had made. They called upon the ancestors to aid in the capture. Every day, the women of Guam offered to help catch the giant fish, and every day the men, forgetting the strength of women, rejected them.
One night, while the women were weaving the pandanus leaves, the answer came to the maga’håga, the elder and leader among them. The women would weave a giant net from their long black hair. One by one, the women, old and young, came forward, knelt on the black stone, and parted with their beauty. Then they got to work, weaving and chanting through the night. By first light, they finished the net and set the trap. Though the giant fish convulsed violently, it could not break the net. Imbued with the women’s intention, it was woven with deep spiritual affection and was therefore unbreakable. However, the women could not haul the giant fish ashore alone. When the men heard what was happening, they rushed to help the women and, together, they hauled the fish ashore. Its meat was shared with everyone.
It was our women’s offering of beauty that saved Guam.
It has taken me many years to understand what this story is about, and why it is still passed down so many millennia later. I am convinced that its lessons, which have served my own people well, may be of some use to us today, as we look out at a world whose contours give us pause and make us feel at times as if whatever we do, whatever we are, will not be enough.
But, and here’s the first lesson, no offering is too small. No stone unneeded. All of us—whether we choose to become human rights lawyers or corporate counsel, or choose never to practice law at all but instead become professors or entrepreneurs or disappear anonymous among the poor or stay at home and raise bright, delicious children—all of us, without exception, are qualified to participate in the rescue of the world.
But this is a quiet truth, and quiet truths are hard to hear when the cynics are outside howling.
Like the women who wove their hair into a magic net, we also do well to remember that saving the world requires all of our hands. As a group that has largely chosen the life of the mind, this will be especially important to remember. It would be a great folly to think that our ideas, no matter how good, would be enough to reverse the dangerous, downward trajectory of our planet. As an activist on the ground, I have often suspected that it is harder for people to rush to the rescue of a world whose magic they have not encountered for themselves, have not seen, felt, touched, turned over in their own hands. I for one can say without pause that so large a part of my own devotion to the cause of justice is that I have hiked up my pants and stood in other peoples’ rivers. Moved to their music. Carried their babies. Watched them come back from burying their dead.
Our next lesson is that any people who profess to love freedom permit others room. Room to grow, to change their minds, to mess up, to leave, to come back in. In our story, the women did not reject the men who had done the same to them. They accepted their help, welcomed it. True, they could not haul in the fish alone, and needed the men. But perhaps that is the whole unromantic, utterly useful point: the part cannot save the whole. And I think this should not so much make us tentative, as it should anchor us in the reality of our collective vulnerability, in the immediacy of our connection.
So anchored, another truth becomes plain: it is strength, not power, that must be the object of our affection.
Finally, a word about beauty:
I have been thinking about beauty so much lately. About folks being robbed of it, folks fading for want of it, folks rushing to embrace only ghosts of it.
There have been periods in my own life when my grief felt more real to me than my hope, moments when my rage, sitting up, threatened to swallow my softness forever. It is here, in these moments, in these fields where older versions of myself come to die, that I am forced again to clarify what exactly it is that I believe. For example, though so much of my energy of late has been in the service of opposing the largest military buildup in recent history, which is now underway in my homeland, I don’t really believe that I am, that we are, going to stop the US Defense Department from doing what it will. So what is it that I, that we, believe really?
In law school, we are taught early on the importance of keeping it tight. We learn to revere the elegance of restraint. We become tailors who sew beautiful clothes of our reason. Somewhere along the way, we pick up a reflex. An intuitive feeling that we should only fight the fights we can win. Lawyer inside the narrowest possible nook.
But this is not our way. As lawyers fashioned in the Richardson tradition, these are not the only tools in our toolkit. In our hands, we hold a precious version, passed carefully to us by our teachers, of what it means to be a lawyer, of how it looks to begin cool from the premise that the law is not neutral, and then thoughtfully, strategically, politically go about using it in the service of justice.1
This is what I love most about Richardson. If we paid attention, even to the silences, we leave here knowing that it is not good enough just to go out and fight the fights we can win. Rather, Richardson nurtures in us a respect for possibilities, and when we are ready, gently says to us, even without saying it, go out and fight the fights that need fighting.
In the relay, something else, something so quiet it can barely be heard, is also transmitted. Let us look at it in the light. Each of us who decides to engage in social change lawyering must find our own way to build an inner life against the possibility, and a certain measure of inevitability, of failure. Indeed, part of our work as people who dare to believe we can save the world is to prepare our wills to withstand some losing, so that we may lose and still set out again, anyhow.
I for one, especially of late, feel like I’m at a funeral when I go home. I see her: Guam, as a fishbowl for so many different kinds of dying. As many of you know, while here with you, I’ve been there, too. My focus always split. Three years later, I can tell you: the pipes of everything I’ve wanted desperately to stop are being fitted and laid. Despite how wide our movement has grown, and how fiercely articulate the generation rising to challenge the changing tide, we are losing.
But then, if I am quiet enough, I hear them, trooping in: the women who taught me how to go about this business of keeping on keeping on. I hear them, all the sounds that saved my life: my mother’s bamboo bracelets, back and forth on the kitchen counter, as she, after hours on her feet, gets dinner ready; the hooks on the bottom of my grandmother’s net, dragging on the floor, as she comes back fishless from the sea; the steady hooves of Cec’s2 horse, as she rides into the evening on the back of the only god she has left.
Having come from a tradition of beauty, of women’s strength, of knowing what is worth wrapping one’s arms around, I realize now that the most cherished of all things I am taking with me in the new morning is, quite simply, other people.
Good morning to you all. What I wish for you is that, whatever work you do, be, as they say, your love made visible. That, and for your inner life, a good coat, because it can get very cold.
1. I’d be remiss if I didn’t clarify that not everyone shares this view of Richardson. Like any law school, Richardson has its lot of establishmentarian professors, who seek to serve, not subvert, the status quo. Also, unlike some other law schools, Richardson has no formalized home for critical race studies. That said, certain faculty members go above and beyond to fill this institutional gap, providing a home for their progressive students. The Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law was that home for me. Particularly for the activist-turned-law-student, who knows very well that the law is not neutral because it is always already a moving train, having such a home is like having a life raft on a choppy sea.
2. There are so many women who have guided me throughout my life; Cec, or Cecelia Sheoships—a Cayuse-Umatilla woman whose love of horses is BEYOND—is one of them. More than anyone I’ve ever met, Cec embodies Rumi’s call to, “[b]e a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.”
Excerpted from No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies by Julian Aguon. Published by Astra House. Copyright © Julian Aguon 2022. All rights reserved.