Growing up in Hawaii, we all get accustomed to this idea that we’re living in an inevitable decline. Because as inherently beautiful as these islands are, it often feels like we’re losing something vital.

We may not know when we have it, but we all know when we lose it. For me, it was watching the mournful parade of cane trucks on the final day of the Lihue Plantation while I was in high school. Or the perpetual march of black dust fences that mark the arrival of a new strip mall while obliterating our memory of whatever fallow field used to lie there.

And so we worship the past. It’s why I majored in history and made the decision to pursue a simpler life off-the-grid. It’s why our social hierarchy is based on how long our family or ethnic group has lived in Hawaii. And it’s why every island has some variation of the phrase, “Keep Kauai, Kauai.”

Rainbow in Maunaloa, Molokai

Does the beauty of Hawaii fill you with hope for the future or dread that the islands’ best days are in the past?

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

I hold on to the past because I’m wary of the future. Especially now, after a year when it felt like the dream of America died.

And then last week I heard my infant daughter laugh for the first time. We always hear about their first steps or first word or first day of school — but nobody warned me about the power of that first laugh. I don’t remember what it sounded like or even where I was, I just remember her sparkling eyes looking directly into mine.

Adults don’t make eye contact like that. Because to make eye contact is to take responsibility. So at some point — like silently passing by a homeless woman on the street — we learn to look down and shuffle by.

Look away for long enough and we lose the courage to believe that the future can be better than the past. Or at least I did. My 3-month-old daughter hasn’t learned any of this yet. So her eyes sparkle and she looks directly into mine while her belly quivers with laughter. 

While hope in inevitable improvement is an opiate leading to complacency, hope in the potential for improvement is a call to action.

As the contagion of her laughter consumes me, I have no choice but to reflect her gaze. And in doing so, I’m beginning to regain a flicker of hope. The courage to hope for a better future. The same hope that led my wife and I to decide to have a child.

On the night of the election I wrote a column saying that we needed to combat anger with kindness, love and community. I was wrong. While all three are important — they aren’t an antidote to anger.

For that, we need hope.

But there are two kinds of hope. While hope in inevitable improvement is an opiate leading to complacency, hope in the potential for improvement is a call to action. The former allows us to sit and wait for others to change the world, while the latter forces us to get up and be the change.

The world can improve. And in many cases, it is improving. We can see this every morning when Kauai’s largest power plant shuts down for the day to make room for solar electricity to power most of our island. And we can hear it in the sounds of the five alala crows that now inhabit Hawaii Island’s forest for the first time in 15 years after being brought back from the brink of extinction.

And I can see it in my daughter. As the descendant on both sides (her mother on one and her great-grandparents on the other) of war refugees who came to this country looking for a better life, her mere existence is incontrovertible proof that the future can be better than the past.

But if my daughter is proof that a better future is possible, every dying child in Aleppo today is equal proof that a better future is not inevitable. We can succeed (like the world did for my daughter) or we can fail (like the world is doing for Syria). Our best days may be ahead of us. Or they might not be. But — and this is the important part — either way, it’s up to us.

Kauai can fix our housing crisis while retaining the character of our island. Climate change can be solved while eliminating global poverty. Democracy in the Middle East is possible. The future can be better than the past. But none of it is inevitable. Not even close.

In acknowledging that it’s possible to solve (and just as possible to fail at) these problems, the burden falls on our shoulders. Which is why it takes courage to have hope in a better future and why it’s so much easier to look away and believe in an inevitable decline.

But you can’t look away from a laughing child.

In my own attempt at looking forward, this is my last column for Civil Beat. It’s no longer enough to write what I think. More important is what I do.

With eyes wide open and a commitment to working toward a future that is better than the past, I’m going to pursue a graduate degree in public policy. Because if hope is the fuel necessary for a prosperous future, then effective policy is how we turn that hope into forward momentum.

To everyone who has read, supported or challenged me in these columns — thank you. It was a year that I will never forget.

Aloha.

About the Author