When I graduated from law school, my first job was as a law clerk for the Chief Justice of American Samoa. In some ways it was the best job I ever had. I'll never forget the first morning I woke up there after arriving in the night. I walked outside and saw paradise. It was so beautiful I almost couldn't believe it. I learned a lot by living in that culture for two years -- both professionally and in life. My Samoan name is Siafa.
Friends told me that the veil is thinner in Polynesia, and I even sensed this among many Polynesians on my mission in Australia. People told my former wife and me that the Island of Ofu was "haunted." They told us a story about some other palagis (white people) who were snorkeling during Sa (evening prayer hour) and drowned. We did feel the presence of spirits on Ofu, but they seemed kind and welcoming. We didn't snorkel during Sa though.
"Sa" means "sacred." Every evening in Samoa all the church bells ring at about 6:30 p.m. to gather everyone in the village for prayer. It is an important and sacred ritual that they observe. If you are driving and the bells ring, you pull over. If you are in a store, you wait until Sa is over to leave. You show respect and avoid interrupting prayer time. It is a quiet time in the islands. I have profound respect for this ritual. I don't know if it would be possible to get everyone in a town or even in a neighborhood here in America to pray together at one time every single day. But I think having a personal and family prayer ritual when the world stops and we talk with God is a beautiful idea -- particularly in the lives of mid-singles, which can get so easily taken over by the duties of single parenting, while simultaneously bringing loneliness for adult company.
"Sa" is also part of the word Samoa. "Moa" means "center." Some say that Samoa is the sacred center of Polynesia. I think of the sacred center as existing within us. The sacred center is a heart at peace with itself.
Probably the most profound thing I learned from the fa'asamoa ("the Samoan way") is commitment to family -- and Samoans have big extended family organizations called "aigas." When you drive through a Samoan village at night and see 20 kids playing volleyball together or swimming in the ocean, you can bet they are all cousins. The village is not just a collection of random people. They live together because they are all related. Sometimes a child will become bonded to an uncle or aunt or grandparent or some other family member, and end up being raised mostly by that person. They call that a Samoan adoption. It is informal. The natural parents don't object to it, because the child is right there in the village and they can see him or her everyday if they want to. I knew a middle-aged woman who had never married who had a "daughter" who was essentially a niece who had just become very close to her, and she was basically raising her. But in a large sense the village was raising her all together.
For single parents especially, we need a village too. We need our church families, our extended families, and our mid-singles community.
Because of the way families are organized in Samoa, nursing homes are virtually non-existent. In fact, people there believe it is shameful to leave the elderly alone to die without their families around. In Samoa, the elderly are the most respected people, and their wisdom is sought after. I think America could learn a lot from that.
Special lifecycle events called "fa'alavelaves," such as weddings and funerals, are highly celebrated in Polynesia. It is not uncommon for Polynesians to cross oceans for the wedding of a second cousin. It's not something we relate well to in America. I hope your wedding feels like a celebration of life for your whole family, rather than just a legal formality.
The hallmark of their culture is to love and be loved. I have often found that the most commonly selected hymns in a particular ward often tell you a lot about the culture. In Cokeville, Wyoming, the ranching town where my dad grew up, they commonly pick hymns about hard work like "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel" or "wake up and do something more than dream of your mansions above." In Samoa, the hymn people always wanted to sing was "Love at Home." Tells you something doesn't it?
Another thing I learned from Polynesia is how to relax. (I could actually use a couple of months in Polynesia now to help me relearn that lesson.) Polynesians don't live to work. They work to live. Everyone on the island from the governor on down is off work by 4:00 p.m. and they spend long evenings together with their families. They have a special way of roasting pig called an "umu" which gives it a delicious smoky taste and makes it really tender. It takes several hours to roast that way -- providing people with a long conversation while the food is cooking. Big family dinners are always a celebration, and they prepare enough so everyone has a huge plate of leftovers to take home. Julia and I went to a wedding once where we literally lived on the leftovers for a week.
Sometimes we Americans are just busy being busy -- and we forget that life should be about joy and feeling good inside. Polynesia can help you to gain real perspective on that. Very few people there are lonely because everyone is surrounded by lots of family and loved ones.
One final thought about polynesians is that they hate to hurt anyone's feelings. They don't generally come to the point very readily. We Americans are often pretty blunt. Samoans take their time in communication and often talk around and around something rather than coming directly to the point -- because they want to be understood without shaming or contradicting the other person. They believe every person is important and a gift from God.
The local matai and village council system in Samoa operates on the principle of consensus, kind of like the Quorum of the 12 Apostles. On any major change, they continue talking until all objections are resolved or at least withdrawn. It takes a long time for them to make decisions, but when they do, the decisions always command popular support because everyone had their say and no one was left behind. What if we could run our marriages that way? What if we decided that having our own way at the other person's expense was not acceptable, and that we wouldn't move forward with a decision or end a discussion until both people were satisfied with the outcome? What if our spouses knew we would not be satisfied with the result until they were? It is more time consuming and it requires more discussion, but it is also an important way for both spouses to feel valued and to have a life they are satisfied with. Perhaps we can use more intention in both dating relationships and in marriage to use the principle of consensus in making decisions.
I don't know how many of you have experience with Polynesian culture, or how well you relate to this essay, but I hope it provided a little insight and perspective that will help in your life.
"About a Boy" is a popular 2002 film starring Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult. It begins with a self-centered mid-single man named Will (Grant) who lives off of the royalties of a Christmas jingle his father wrote. So he has no job and doesn't need one. He insists that he is an "island" and doesn't need anyone in his life. He spends his day playing pool, getting haircuts, watching TV, buying things, and figuring out ways to date lots of different girls. A couple of his married friends offered to make him godfather to their daughter Imogene. Will's response was, "I can't think of a worse godfather for Imogene." He said that he likely wouldn't do anything to help her until her 18th birthday, when he would take her out, get her drunk and, "let's face it, probably try and shag her." The mother says, "I can't really believe you're that shallow." Will boastfully responds, "No, you've always had that wrong. I really am that shallow."
Will develops an elaborate scheme to date "single mums" by attending a support group and pretending he has a two year-old child named "Ned." It actually works and he begins dating a woman from the support group he is attending. They end up on a Saturday outing to a park. The woman informs Will on their way out the door that they are taking her friend's geeky teenage son "Marcus" (Hoult) on the outing with them because his mother (Toni Collette) is not feeling well. His mother is something of a hippie and gives him a loaf of bread to take on the picnic. It is hard as a rock and won't break when Marcus tries to feed the ducks with it. In desperation, he finally throws the entire loaf into the pond and kills a duck with it. Forever after that he calls that day "the dead duck day."
When Will and his date take Marcus home, they find his mother lying unconscious, having attempted suicide. They call an ambulance and rush her to the hospital, where she receives life saving treatment and lives.
Marcus is very disconcerted by his mother's suicide attempt. He is bullied at school and doesn't have any friends. He is such a target for bullies that even the other geeky kids don't feel safe hanging around him. He also realizes that the only person he really has in the world is his mother, and she is unstable. He says to himself that one person is not enough. "You need backup." So Marcus turns to Will, the "island" man, and starts dropping by his apartment after school. At first Will is resistant, but eventually takes a liking to Marcus.
One day when Will sees Marcus getting bullied, he takes him out and buys him some cool new shoes. Of course, soon thereafter, the bullies steal the shoes and he has to walk home in the rain in his stocking feet. As he explains the situation to his mother, he is forced to tell her who bought him the new shoes, and she goes to a restaurant and confronts Will about "these little after school tea parties." Will gets upset, tells her off for being a bad mother and not knowing what her son needs, and vows to "not open my door to Marcus again, adding "I'll be grateful to be rid of the pair of you frankly." The mother then seems to shift her position by saying, "so that's it then, you're out of his life?" She asks him if, by some miracle, he is right about what Marcus needs and she is wrong, what he is going to do about it. At first he claims that Marcus is none of his business, but continues to allow him around his apartment, gives him socially relevant Christmas presents, and coaches him through his first crush. He observes that, "When you let one person in, all sorts of other people come in too." I think, perhaps, that is the most important idea in the movie. Marcus helps Will to realize that being an island isn't enough. There are "Island chains." Will realizes that he needs people in his life.
After he lets Marcus in, Will takes a fancy to another beautiful "single mum" named "Rachel" (Rachel Weisz) and wants her to be his girlfriend. He wishes that he was "in any way interesting" to make him more appealing to her. He interjects a comment about Marcus in a conversation she is having with someone else, and she assumes that Marcus is Will's son. Not having learned his lesson yet, Will allows her to go on believing that, even when he brings Marcus over to her house for a Saturday afternoon. During that little event, Marcus is forced to associate with Rachel's son Ali (Augustus Prew), who is one of the kids bullying Marcus at school. When he threatens to cut Marcus into little pieces if he doesn't stop his "father" from dating Rachel, Marcus goes running from the house, and Rachel is forced to do some advanced single parenting.
Will ultimately decides that he has to tell Rachel that Marcus is not his son, but he blames her for choosing to believe it. She gets upset that he has been lying to her about having a son and breaks up with him.
Will, fresh from this stinging rejection, blames Marcus for messing up his relationship and says he can't help him with "real things" like his mother's depression. Marcus gets upset and decides the only way to make his mother happy is to sing "Killing Me Softly" in front of his entire school at a talent show, playing a tambourine that his mother gave him for Christmas.
After Marcus deserts Will and stops coming around his house, Will misses him and realizes that his perfect little life doesn't mean anything. He realizes that the only thing that means anything to him is Marcus. So he goes to Marcus's mother and pleads with her not to try to kill herself again. In the course of this conversation, he learns about Marcus's plan to perform at the talent show and knows immediately that it is going to get him bullied even worse at school. Will and Marcus's mother rush off to put a stop to Marcus's plan.
When they get there, Will pleads with Marcus not to perform and tells him that he cannot make his mother happy, and she has to do that for herself. Marcus disagrees and goes out on stage. He begins a timid performance and is about to be laughed off stage when Will shows up on stage with an electric guitar and gives a humorous (but a little more "hip") performance--for which he takes an apple to the head from a heckling student in the crowd. His performance saves the day for Marcus. Rachel is in the crowd and is impressed by Will's willingness to make a fool out of himself to get Marcus through his moment of humiliation. She gets back together with him and Marcus develops some sort of relationship with the first crush. The closing scene of the film is where they are all celebrating Christmas together as a hodgepodge of misfit people.
I love this movie for a few reasons. First and foremost, I think it explores the fact that letting one person into your life and your heart can open the floodgates to a whole lot more love. Marcus's persistence softens Will's heart, and he realizes that it feels good to love and be loved. Once he let Marcus in, he could let Rachel in and have more than a superficial relationship.
I also love that this movie is full of single parents who are finding their own ways through life, and a confirmed bachelor who develops a parental kind of love for a young kid. They are figuring out parenting mostly on their own. When I was a mid-single, I often said, "We are the Island of misfit toys." I think it helps for mid-singles to be together and give each other support. It is tempting to draw a little bubble around ourselves and our children and stay isolated. Having been through significant traumas, it feels safer to close people out. But letting more people in is important. Letting love in is essential.
The important message of "About a Boy" is that life doesn't mean much if you are an island. It means more when you share it with others. If you want a funny, heartwarming movie, find this one, pop some popcorn and enjoy. If you are a mid-single, I think it will speak to your heart.