The Hawaiian word ahonui is commonly translated as "patience." However, that translation into English can be very, very misleading
Generally, when we talk about patience in English, we mean the ability to suffer hardship, or discomfort, or pain, without complaint. There is a sense of inner strength or courage about it, but it's essentially a passive concept. Something bad is happening to you, but you put up with it bravely for as long as it takes.
As admirable as that concept might be, it doesn't carry the full meaning of ahonui.
Let me tell you a story that will help to illustrate this, one of the stories of the legendary hero Maui. This is a Kauai version, and I'll bring out some of the inner meanings to show the relationship to ahonui.
Once a upon a time, long before Captain Cook, Maui Kupua, who was born on Kauai, of course, was coming back from O'ahu in his canoe when he thought to himself, "Why are the islands so far apart? They should all be closer together." So after he landed he went to his mother, Hina in Wailua and asked for her advice.
Hina stopped her tapa beating and said, "If you want to bring the islands together you will have to catch the giant whale Luehu with your magic fishhook, Manai-a-ka-lani, and you will have to hold on fast for a long time. If you can do this, Luehu will circle the islands and you will be able to pull them together. Take your brothers with you to help with the canoe, but warn them to always face forward no matter what happens, or you will fail."
So Maui gathered his four brothers, Maui, Maui, Maui, and Maui, and told them what he was going to do. They were excited about such an adventure, and when he warned them about facing forward no matter what, they promised that they would.
At last the canoe was ready, the fishhook was ready, and the brothers were ready. During a break in the surf they paddled out into the Kai'ei'ewaho Channel between Kauai and O'ahu and around to the northwest of Kauai to begin their search for the great whale. For days and days they searched, until at last they found the great whale Luehu swimming beside Nihoa, the island to the northwest of Kauai. Maui threw his magical fishhook, Luehu caught it in his mouth, and immediately the whale began pulling the canoe through the ocean at high speed.
For many more long days the Maui brothers held on with determination as the whale pulled them onward, but by carefully tugging on the fishing line in just the right way, and by cleverly paddling in just the right way at just the right time, they caused the whale to circle all the islands, until one day they found themselves again off the coast of Wailua, facing toward O'ahu.
Luehu was tired now, so while Maui Kupua pulled on the fishing line with all his might his brothers back-paddled furiously, and slowly, slowly the islands began to pull together. Just then, a canoe bailer, Kaliu, floated past the canoe. The eldest Maui, in the steersman position, quickly grabbed it and tossed it behind him in case they should need it. Unknown to him, the bailer was really a mischievous spirit, an e'epa, who turned into a very beautiful woman. All the people gathered on the Wailua shoreline exclaimed about her beauty. At first, none of the Maui brothers paid attention, but finally the praises got so loud that Maui's four brothers turned around to see who this beautiful woman was that everyone was shouting about. In that moment, Luehu felt the weakening of the pull against him and gave one last desperate leap to escape. Without his brothers to help him, Maui Kupua pulled too hard, the fishing line broke, Luehu got away, and the islands drifted apart again. And we know the story is true because the islands are still far apart today.
Hawaiian legends always contain knowledge hidden below the surface, usually in the form of names which have several meanings. In this story, the hero Maui wants to accomplish a great task, the uniting of the islands, but in order to do this he has to capture the whale, Luehu, with his fishhook, Manai-a-ka-lani. Now, "Luehu" means "scattered," and "Manaiakalani" is "flower lei needle." The scattered islands have to be brought together, perhaps politically, culturally, or socially, like flowers strung on a lei. Where did they find the whale? The old name of the Kauai Channel, "Kai'ei'ewaho," simply means "The Outer Heights," referring to the high waves of the channel, but it could also refer to the need to go outside of one's normal boundaries. The place where they encountered the whale, "Nihoa," was a very sacred place in ancient times. The name means "jagged, sharp," like a row of teeth, and is part of an old saying: "Ku paku ka pali o Nihoa i ka makani - The cliffs of Nihoa stand like a shield against the wind." This saying refers to someone who faces misfortune with courage.
The most important element in the story is the fishing line, because this is called aho, and it also means "breath, to breathe," and "to put forth great effort." Maui must put forth great effort to accomplish his aim, but that still isn't enough. The word nui means "big, much, many; something extending over time, or something very important." Ahonui is the Hawaiian word for "patience." And, it is also the word for "perseverance." This is not the patience of waiting in a line. It is the persistence of knocking on a door until you get an answer. It is not the patience of waiting out a storm. It is the perseverance of moving through a storm to your destination. It is not waiting to get healed. It is using everything you know and doing everything you can to make the healing happen. Ahonui can also be translated as "many breaths," the act of moving toward something you want for as many breaths as it takes.
Hawaiian legends do not always have happy endings, because sometimes their purpose is not only to tell you how to succeed, but also how to fail. In the story just told, the downfall of the great plan to unite the islands was caused by Kaliu, which means "a leaky canoe bailer." Ka refers to a canoe bailer, but it is also a strong action word used for tying things together, for making or doing things, and even for fishing. Liu, the "leakage," is the leaking away of attention to your purpose, the loss of focus on what is important. In the story, Maui's brothers, representing aspects of himself, get distracted, and as they lose their focus they also lose their goal. Perseverance does not work on a part-time basis.
Fortunately, there are many examples in this world of people who have persevered in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, and who have accomplished more than was thought humanly possible. I have met and talked with a lot of such people, and have read about many more, but one stands out strongly in my memory.
A few years ago I had the privilege of participating in a Department of Education program to teach young people about self esteem, and part of the workshop I gave was incorporated into a video that was distributed in the school system. The best part of the video was not my contribution, however. The best part was the story of a young girl who became a hula dancer. I was mildly impressed when the camera showed her from the waist up dancing with a group of other girls, all moving gracefully with the same rhythm and gestures. When the camera pulled back ... I was stunned. This lovely young girl was a good dancer, yes, as good as the others. And she had only one leg.
Imagine the patience, the persistence, the suffering, the perseverance, the AHONUI that this young girl applied to develop the grace and skill that was also difficult for her two-legged sisters. And what gave her this ahonui? Where did it come from? How did she maintain it through all the fears and doubts and problems she must have endured? There is only one answer. What gave her the strength of her ahonui was the aloha she had for the hula.
What will give you the strength to persevere in the direction of your dreams and desires, plans and goals, wishes and healings, is the love you have for something that you decide is so important, so valuable, so good, that nothing at all can replace it in your mind and in your heart. If your aloha is strong enough, you will have the ahonui to keep going in spite of doubt, disappointment, fear, misunderstanding, and all the people who tell you that what you want is impossible. In this infinite universe, the only impossibility is whatever you never attempt, and the only failure is when you decide to give up.
However, there is something even more important to learn from Maui's story. What do you do when you've done everything you know how to do and put all the energy and attention you have available into achieving what you want and it still doesn't work out? After all, Maui didn't give up on life after his plan to unite the islands failed. He went on to have many more adventures. The answer lies in another Hawaiian word, ha'ule. Often used to mean "to fail, failure," it really carries the idea of losing something. And, in wonderfully Hawaiian style, it has another meaning as well: "to begin to do something else."