"I feel so crap because I suck at my own language... I can barely understand what my teacher's saying and the worst part is that I'm really trying. Every time I think I'm doing well, something happens that tells me I'm not; it just feels so pointless to keep going right now."
Echoing a sentiment many of us who are on the journey of reconnecting with Te Reo can relate to, my friend Tauora vented her frustration, tired and at her rope's end. Having just finished her first term of immersion Māori classes, she hadn't done as well as she'd hoped, and this is where our conversation came about. As we were talking, I realised this silent struggle had been a main theme for many Te Reo learners I'd talked to. Whether you've encountered this space of mamae in your walk with Te Reo or not, my hope is there are take away points for everyone in this piece.
It's okay to have compassion for self and compassion for others.
Compassion is so crucial. Many people, myself included, have struggled with this because we're so accustomed to a culture that exercises judgement and faults weakness to the point where we're no longer passive receivers, we're active contributors. And not just in mainstream spheres either—we do this to ourselves too. The cool thing is, our harsh responses to imperfection don't need to be the only responses available to us; they don't have to be what guide our actions. When we see another way of handling the same situation modelled to us, we're empowered with the choice of taking on that new response, or continuing with our old one. Understanding why a lack of compassion is so important to replace, which often comes in the form of judgement and criticism, is the first step. An awesome wahine, Marianne Williamson, put it this way, "As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." We perpetuate the mindsets we ourselves hold; if we have a mindset of compassion towards self, we give others permission to choose the same. But if we have a judgemental, critical mindset towards self, we also extend that to others; labelling what we didn't do as 'not good enough' and what we did do as 'not enough.' While 'not good enough' attacks the quality of our work, 'not enough' attacks the quantity of our work and either way, we lose. That's one heck of a double negative to be carrying around every single day. Compassion on the other hand, gives grace for what we didn't do, and celebrates what we did do. Accepting ourselves and where we are with Te Reo unconditionally is where compassion begins; e hoa it truly is okay not to be best friends, whanaunga or even acquainted with Te Reo yet. Often times our disconnection is through no fault of our own and we'll never add anything to our lives by faulting what we had no control over. Part of compassion is saying that we are good enough and we are enough — irrespective of how much or how little Te Reo is in our lives. Accepting self isn't a point we reach, it's a decision we make. It's us saying we're going to stop moving the goalposts and to give ourselves, and by extension to others, permission to be imperfect.
Someone will be the reason you keep going, and you will be the reason someone else keeps going.
There were multiple occasions I nearly threw in the towel and called it quits with Te Reo. For a long time, my logical brain told me I'd invested too many years to give up that easy and so usually, my desire to quit would be outweighed by how long I'd been committed to the kaupapa for. At one point though, I found myself in my teacher's office, venting about how I had nothing left to give. Logical brain or not, I didn't even care; I was done. Te Reo and I were on the rocks and I was seriously thinking we wouldn't get through this. What made all the difference was that teacher's response — he was kind, he was compassionate, he got it, and he encouraged me to keep going. He really surprised me because I'd expected either judgement or to be told to harden up and get on with it—I didn't have any compassion for myself and I didn't think anyone else would either. But he did; in that space of time, he was the reason I kept going. After our kōrero, I can't remember at what point it clicked, but it did and if it hadn't of been for him, I wouldn't be writing this today. What's even more crazy, is that the roles were reversed and I was in my teacher's position, and Tauora, who said that opening quote, was in mine. Yet just last week we were having a great kōrero while going over some of her Te Reo mahi and she said to me, "I would've quit if it wasn't for you. But here I am now, doing better at it than I ever thought I could've." It was then I understood that we are all someone else's reason to keep going. If you're on the rocks with Te Reo right now, e hoa don't give up on yourself. Find someone that can be your reason for this season and can spur you on in your journey; siblings, parents, friends, peers that look up to you, maybe even someone from the mana wahine or mana tāne series. Keep going and keep learning, you may not see it today, but further down the track you may be someone else's reason to keep going tomorrow.
Is your mamae from a place of disconnect, or from a space of growth?
Again I found myself in that same teacher's office, not on the verge of quitting this time, but hurting all the same. I didn't even know learning a language could be so painful, but then again, it wasn't a language, it was my language, the language my father and so many of his generation were robbed of or had beaten out of them. The importance of carrying Te Reo for both of us was an emotionally-charged weight I was always aware of. For a period of time, pretty much every week I'd be on the phone to my cousin no joke, bawling my eyes out about how much this whole process hurt; no one ever said I'd feel everything, especially my insecurities, this much. Was it ever going to pass? Though it certainly didn't feel like it at the time, it did, and this point was one of the key things I learnt. Before knowing Te Reo, the mamae I carried was from a place of disconnect — I didn't know what it meant to be Māori and I'd never grown up with Te Reo. But when I was in my teacher's office that day, what I didn't realise was that my pain was no longer from a place of disconnect, it was from a space of growth; I just hadn't been able to tell the difference. Imagine a seed creating roots in the soil, it has to continually break the confines of what's comfortable in order to flower. Think of a wahine who becomes pregnant, her entire body is continually reconfiguring itself for nine months to make room for the life inside of her, and then when she gives birth, well, let's just say it'll hurt. Growing pains are signs that let us know life and progress are happening, so if you're in this waka wondering whether or not the discomfort, insecurity or mamae will ever stop, pause and think, where is this pain coming from? You may be closer to the other side of peace than you realise.
We never start our journey with Te Reo from nothing.
This point always gets me really excited. I love talking about this. For some reason when we go on our journeys of reconnection, many think we're starting from nothing and need to do a Tāne Mahuta to get things going again; that we need to start from scratch, fashion flesh to bone and breathe life into our Māoritanga again. But if we're walking, talking and learning, the truth is that we're glasses half full — we already have one language, maybe more even, and now we're layering our minds with another. The only time we ever really start with nothing is when we first come into this world; any time past that, we do have something and in a society where there's enough negativity to last a lifetime, learning Te Reo is a great way to develop a positive perspective. While all of us start our journeys with Te Reo in different places, where we start is never where we stay. Sometimes it can feel like we're starting with nothing because the negative beliefs or mamae swirling around our Māoritanga are framing our outlook, but don't let what scares you tell you what you're seeing; we see what we focus on, so if nothing is all you're seeing, shift your focus to the glass half-full perspective. You're simply adding to what you've already got.
There is no shortcut to any place worth going.
As Tauora told me about her experience learning Te Reo, we soon landed on the topic of her classes and it turned out, she hadn't actually been going to as many of them throughout the term than I'd originally thought. Now before we get into why, I want you to imagine this scenario in your mind.
You're standing by the stove in your kitchen and you put your hand on the element. The element's off. Then, someone comes along and turns the element on low; while you can feel the heat under your skin, it's bearable. All of a sudden they put it on high and you jump back, recoiling in pain while nursing your burnt hand. As humans, it is an inbuilt response to recoil from pain, discomfort, fear or danger once it passes what we we're willing to tolerate, whether physical or otherwise. When Tauora opened up about the mamae and insecurity she felt so acutely in her classes, her response to not go was her recoiling; to remove the possibility of experiencing further pain. Yet it's so easy for us to judge others just on what we can see — either their action or inaction — without considering everything past that like their fears, negative experiences, beliefs or the intensity of these. We don't need to know their story to empathise with their pain; we have our own and we all know how much it sucks to be kicked while you're down. Before we talk about the practicals of reconnecting with Te Reo, it's so important for us to create a space of empathy for our very human response to recoil. More often than not, the problem isn't about us not caring enough, it's about us caring so much that the thought of failing or not being good enough has us checking out of the waka before we ever really got in.
Speaking now to the practical side, the problem with Tauora's response was that while it did ease her mamae in the short term, in the long run it prolonged the amount of time she would have that mamae for. A rock and a hard place situation, Tauora realised that her hard place could either work for or against her, she could use the struggle to make her stronger or the weight of the situation could crush her resolve and she could do something else. The choice was hers. While speaking to this kaupapa in love is so essential, we need be real here — there is no substitute for a good work ethic. There is no shortcut that can make you magically fluent, it comes down to self discipline. Self discipline is a commitment to the decisions that will bring out the best in you and your life, a decision is choosing one thing so fully that no other option is available, and you can discern the integrity of your discipline by looking at your decisions. In a learning context, if you've got Te Reo classes, go to them. Don't overthink it, don't let your fear or feelings of inadequacy be the rangatira calling the shots, just make the decision to go; it will get easier and those feelings do pass in time. If you've got Te Reo homework, do it. We've all been in that situation where no one does the homework and everyone justifies not doing it because of other people, so I want to challenge you. The repercussions of that aren't like a random person's mail turning up in the letterbox where you can safely say, 'that's not my name, that's not my mail', consequences don't mix up addresses or postal codes — every decision requires your sign off to happen. Challenge yourself to be the one who does the work even when those around you don't, because your growth is dependent on you. If you want to get more confident at speaking, practice with people or read a Māori book aloud every night (ask your teacher for some suggestions if you don't know where to look). How well you can stick to the routines of practice you create, which at the end of the day are a series of repeated decisions, will help you discern the integrity of your self discipline. And if it's not that strong to start with or lots of things get in the way, that's kai te pai e hoa, you can only get better. Onwards and upwards!
The fruit of your labour will always be the last thing to grow because its nourishment is meant for others.
Closing this kōrero with our seed analogy, have you ever noticed that by and large, fruit is the last thing to appear on a tree? Branches, leaves, flowers even, all come onto the scene before fruit does. And even then, it still has to grow and ripen before you can do anything with it. A way of looking at our journey with Te Reo is like the journey a seed takes to bear fruit; you are first a seed, breaking the confines of your fears and insecurities to learn the basics of Te Reo. As your roots grow wider and deeper in the soil, in the safety of what's unseen, you widen your understanding of the language and deepen your ability to use the basics well. Then when you break from the safety of the soil and begin thriving in the light of day, you start connecting Te Reo with the cultural knowledge it breathes in. Growing in all directions, your mind constantly stretches and expands as the roots below and branches above begin steeping your mind with another way of seeing the world. Leaves and flowers blossom from the branches while roots intertwine their growth with other trees as you learn the richness of your language and connect yourself to the knowledge bases of others. When fruit appears, it flourishes and ripens as we become able to nurture and sustain others in their reo journeys with the fruit from ours. From then on, the seasons of our lives with Te Reo mature us into life-giving trees in Ngāi Māori's forest, uplifting and growing all those who come around us.
Mother Teresa once said, "the best thing you can give to your family and to the world is a healthy you." Reaching that space of wellness with yourself and your Māoritanga is what this piece is all about — kia ora for taking the time to read it. I hope it empowers you in your own journey with Te Reo.
Ngā mihi e hoa mā,