Kuleana (cool-ay-ah-nah) literally translates from Hawaiian to English as “responsibility.” It means doing the job that you are hired to do. It means taking care of your keiki (children), makua (parents) and kupuna (elders). It means cleaning up after yourself and respecting the aina (earth). It means personal accountability.
For months I have been watching masons build a rock wall around the old Japanese cemetery just steps from my front door. Every weekend they come with rocks and concrete, wheelbarrows and tools. Slowly and laboriously they have built a rock wall about 3 feet high and at least a city block long. It’s really a beautiful wall that has replaced an old six foot plastic and metal fence that had attracted more trouble than it did keep anyone out. It has opened up our neighborhood and often times I find myself admiring it.
While talking with one of the masons the other day he explained to me what building the wall means to him…
“My grandparents are buried here” he said. “And you see that grave with the flag over there? That’s Senator Inouye's grandparents. Without them, we would not be here.”
He continued, “Who knows how different life would have been? I’m building this wall to last a hundred years and more. It’s my kuleana.”
And I was deeply touched.
This is just one example of kuleana here in Hawaii but I know that the meaning of the word is universal. It got me thinking about responsibility and personal accountability on a much larger scale.
Most people have a moral compass. There is a natural drive to do well and to want good things in life. In general as a human race we want good health, secure shelter, and promising futures. People are always striving to “make it” or at least to “make it easier.” We try to lessen the struggles of life for our children and honor our elders even after death. Nearly all people feel some obligation for the way their life turns out.
Then you have the others. I’m not sure whether to call them ignorant or ungrateful but we all know who they are. Maybe lazy is a better word. We all know them. The guy at work who never does his job, always calls in sick and then when he is there, complains about how unfair his job is. The person who always says, “It’s not MY problem.” The countless Americans who have given up on working for the American dream and those people who feel entitled, with absolutely no kuleana for spending the effort to achieve anything!
Often, the line of work that I am in (healthcare) makes me question myself and others. For instance… why would one keep eating fast food if he weighs 500 pounds? Why would you keep smoking if you know you have cancer? Why would you drink and drive if you knew you could kill your best friend? Why would you let your kids run the streets? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care? Where is the sense of kuleana?!?
You are my kuleana. I am responsible for trying to do the best that I can for not only myself and my family but for my neighbors, friends, community, strangers, and you. It is my kuleana to care.
All of this might sound a little preachy… and I am no saint. Not even close. But I truly think that if we take more responsibility for each other, we are more likely to care about the outcome for everyone involved. There might be less people dying of junk-food induced heart attacks. We might see fewer stories on the nightly news about how some kid went "crazy" and shot up a school because no one wanted to take responsibility for him.
Most of all, if we are acting with kuleana, we just might be proud of our actions in a hundred years. Like the mason who’s building the rock wall around the old Japanese cemetery. He knows that he will receive no payment for his actions. It’s even possible that in a hundred years no one but his own kin will know his name. It’s possible they may forget to remember that he helped build the beautiful rock wall that borders the historic cemetery. But that rock wall, I bet, will still be standing there.
The intentions. The intentions that we all have a responsibility to care for each other and that without each other :
“Who knows how different life would have been?”
That Kuleana will still be there.