Day 8 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge!


ma·ha·lo  /ˈmäˌhälō/   [Hawaiian] :   thank you



How many times during the course of your day do you say the words “thank you”?


Most of us are well trained to offer thanks throughout the course of the day: to the person who lets us go before them in line at the grocery store, to the barista who pours our coffee, to the fellow rider who offers us his or her seat on the bus, to the person who whispers a “bless you” or “gesundheit” when we sneeze. The act of giving thanks can sometimes lose its meaning in mundane repetition, even if the words are sincere. How often do we actually connect with what we are saying? How often are we really offering thanks rather than going through the motions?


Sometimes, we can say the word “thanks” in a way that actually implies the opposite. As in “thanks a lot,” when we don’t feel we have gotten what we needed in an appropriate time or manner. Our “Thanks” is canceled out when we add “for nothing” to it.


Anthropologist David Graeber writes about the origins of niceties in the English language. He writes, “Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it…We often assume that the habit is universal, but … it is not. Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.”


He writes about it deriving significance from commerce: “it is the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world along with them.” He continues to say that it is related to assumptions about “what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them.”


But I wonder, isn’t offering thanks more than fulfilling an unwritten obligation? Doesn’t saying “thank you” have the capacity to be an act of generosity rather than a repayment of what is owed? Regardless of what our collective rituals are, isn’t there some desire within us to acknowledge someone else standing before us with his or her gifts?


The Hawaiian word mahalo is translated as “thank you” but much is lost in this translation. Kūpuna, Hawaiian elders, speak about the word as a spiritual blessing. Ma means “in.” Hâ means “breath.” Alo means “presence” or “front” or “face.” So a more accurate interpretation of mahalo would be: “May you be in Divine Breath” or “May you be in the presence of divine spiritual breath of life.”


In this way, saying mahalo is not dependent on having had anything done for you. Saying mahalo can be an honoring of what another is offering just by being alive and present, standing before you.


In the United States, we live in a culture that very much thrives on a scarcity mentality. We are told we need more and more to be happy, and when we get more and are still not happy, advertisers tell us it is because we didn’t get the right kind of “more.” We are sold solutions for problems we didn’t even know we had. If we continue to believe these stories of scarcity then what we have is never enough and it becomes nearly impossible to be satisfied, much less grateful.


Photo by Andrew Pescod

Photo by Andrew Pescod


I keep hearing in different stories in different places that although you may think that giving would grow in proportion to one’s income, the reality is the opposite. An NPR story last week discussed the work of UCLA researcher Patricia Greenfield who tracked families in Chiapas ,Mexico over four decades. Many of her study’s participants began poor but grew in wealth over time. She explains wealth increases, “We become more individualistic, less family and community oriented.”


Greenfield argues that this trend has happened in the United States over a longer period. This shift where individual wealth is the ultimate goal is reflected in the way we communicate with one another. According to the article, Greenfield did an analysis of more than one million books published between the years 1800 and 2000 in the U.S. As the country grew wealthier over that 200-year period, Greenfield found a difference in the words used:  “the frequency of the word ‘get’ went up and the frequency of the word ‘give’ went down.”  Her study also revealed changes in the way in which Americans referred to themselves, with “individual,” “self,” and “unique” becoming more popular than words that reflect community like “give” and “belong.”


I worked in the lower Garden District of New Orleans at a small nonprofit community center when I was in my early twenties. This was years after the St. Thomas Housing Development had been torn down and the River Garden “mixed income” housing development had risen in its place. Those who worked at the center talked about how, yes, there had been issues with drugs and violence, but these were spoken of as a hindrance, as something that could have been fixed with time and attention. They spoke with grief in their voices of what had been lost. When the housing development was torn down, the community was torn apart. Neighbors used to be able to rely on one another for childcare. They would look out for each other, making extra food when they knew a friend was hurting or slipping a five or ten dollar bill into their next-door neighbor’s pocket when she wasn’t looking. There was a sense that times were hard and nobody had a lot, but that what they had could be shared, had to be shared. When the housing development was torn down, community members were left to fend for themselves.


This same issue was magnified years later when the city council chose to tear down many housing developments after Hurricane Katrina. None of these had much or any damage from the storm; most of them had been built in the sixties and the materials used easily withstood the winds and water. The damage that did exist was from years of neglect from HUD, not from the impact of the winds of the storm or the levees failing. When I would check in with friends back at the community center, they talked about how many calls a day–80, 100–they were getting about rent assistance and utility assistance. People couldn’t get Section 8 housing. People weren’t able to afford rents. Residents from public housing were scattered around the city, which not only made living hard but less joyful. When we don’t live in community, we don’t have as many opportunities to be generous or as many opportunities to be grateful. Our failures become solitary and have to be borne alone. We believe we have to make it by ourselves and when we can’t (as we all experience at some point or another), it is easy to fall into despair.


Professor of Psychology at U C Berkeley Dacher Keltner grew up poor himself and felt a shift in his responsiveness to others when he moved into a position of prominence and wealth. Data from his research quantifies what he felt in his own experience. On NPR, he said, “ In just about every way you can study it, our lower-class individuals volunteer more, they give more of their resources — they’re more generous,” he said. “The poor, say with family incomes below $30,000 and $25,000, are giving about 4.2 percent of their wealth away, whereas the wealthy are giving away 2.7 percent.”


As people grow wealthy and able to take care of themselves, they don’t have to rely on the support of their community and so they may not strive to maintain or create new connections. And they may not feel the need to help others.


When we are focused only on ourselves and our own wellbeing, we not only lose sight of those around us but we cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to be part of a larger community. We cheat ourselves of the gift of offering our generosity and the gift of accepting the generosity of others. We deny ourselves the beauty that can only come through connection.


I know that using the sanskrit word namaste has become a sort of cliche, mostly because of its use in the American yoga community. And I understand the problems with cultural appropriation. However, I think the desire to use this word–to bring in words like namaste or mahalo–comes from a deep yearning for a word that is stronger than thank you. Namaste translates as “the divine in me honors the divine in you.” To recognize the divine in someone else is to imply careful, deep attention. To offer a spiritual blessing means that you honor the other person in their complexity, that you see them for their deepest and most divine self.


I think that we need opportunities to give to one another. I think we crave this. We are not completely fed when we feed only ourselves. The Buddha said, “If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.” In the African dance classes I go to regularly, there are certain moves that the teachers refer to as “give.” Arms and hands are extended, palms open, to the sides or to the front or to the sky, the gesture an act of offering the energy of the movement and of oneself. And as we do the movements, the teacher will repeat the reminder as we move our arms to the beat to the drum, “And give, and give, and give, and give…”






Filed under 30 days 30 words

3 responses to “ma·ha·lo

  1. Jim

    dimity n., a thin, strong, corded cotton cloth
    Your posting, mahalo, raises disturbing questions. Could it be that when we gain our financial independence we lose our sense of connection to others? Do we mistakenly conclude we no longer need each other because we have money? Then, there’s that reference to the divine in me honoring the divine in you. Perhaps that’s the dimity that connects all of us, and the challenge for us is to acknowledge everyday in everyway that the corded cloth of divine life weaves in and out of our lives. Mindfulness of that connection whenever I feel it creates gratitude in me, and I am thankful that something you have done has reminded me we are all connected, and one more time I am saved from the monstrous American illusion that we are self-made men (and now women: medical research sadly indicates that women who climb the corporate ladder take on the same terrible diseases as the men. The ladder separates, isolates and alienates).
    Here I borrow from MLK whose March on Washington we have just honored in anniversary:
    “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
    So my thanks, mahalo, Namaste, gratitude is honoring the thread of humanity/divinity, the dimity, that connects us all.

    • Bob Neylan

      Thank you for for posting such a thought provoking and interesting essay. It has caused me to examine very closely how I say thank you and to be mindful of the sincerity and honesty contained in it’s delivery. Thank You.

    • the dictionary project

      “The ladder separates, isolates, and alienates.” Absolutely. We need more bridges, less ladders. 🙂

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