A Word for Lifelong Friendships

Moai 模合(mo-eye) • noun

Definition: A group of life long friends who provide social, financial, health, and spiritual support

Origin: Japanese

Much of the work at The Sustainable Culture Lab consists of raising awareness of the systemic horrors of ethnocide, but it can become alarmingly easy to focus on this unpleasant reality rather than focusing on potential solutions. I have fallen into this trap myself and to prevent this outlook, I now make sure to dedicate more and more of my time towards cultivating and contemplating Eǔtopia. Fortunately for me, there is sustainable good culture all around us if we look closely, and moai is one of them.

The awareness of moai has grown in popularity in the United States due to the work of Blue Zones, which is an organization that examines the various practices of communities around the world who have the longest life expectancies. In Okinawa, Japan, the practice of moai has helped many people live for over a century.

Moais originally formed in Okinawa as a way to pool resources together. If an individual needed money to buy land or take care of an emergency, they could rely on their village to help them because that was the only way to have enough money. Today, the idea of a moai has expanded to become more of a social support network and a cultural tradition for built-in companionship. Typically five or so people meet around once a week to support each other socially, financially, and/or spiritually. They are essentially a core group of lifelong friends, and some moais have lasted for over 90 years. Okinawans even create moais for their children so that they can have lifelong companions.

Sustaining a moai is not a passive endeavor, but a lifelong commitment to being a good friend. Knowing that you have a second family that is always going to be there for you helps to manage anxiety and stress, and could be one of the many reasons why Okinawans live extraordinarily long, healthy, and happy lives. Moais create an existence where people rarely feel alone and always feel connected to something greater than themselves.

Moai vs. American Individualism

Upon learning about moais, it became abundantly clear that this cultural practice represented the cultural antithesis of American society. This is not to say that Americans do not try to form friend groups, but that our cultural focus is always pointed towards the individual. America steadfastly professes the benevolence of the “self-made” person who achieved everything on their own and emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself. The notion of needing help is still far too often perceived as a personal failing rather than an inevitable occurrence. America, in many ways, discourages moais which may be one of the many reasons why we are living shorter, less healthy, and more stressful lives.

When I first moved to D.C., most of my friends were fellow graduates from the Medill School of Journalism, but in less than a year a majority of them had moved away. I began making new friendships but we were all meeting separately, so I started bringing everyone together in the hopes of creating a core group. This worked for a while until one friend moved away and another would feel like a “third wheel” if it was just the three of us. 

When I think about my endeavor to make a lifelong friend group, I can see how my efforts were undermined by an absence of language and philosophy. I could not call my group a moai because I did have that term in my vocabulary. We were just a group of friends that was sustained by an emotional bond, but that emotional bond did not last without a concrete word to support it. In fact, America’s individualistic discourse made us feel self-conscious about being a “third wheel” in the first place, and it didn’t teach us about the benefits of staying a group. We were brought up to see ourselves as individuals who socialized from time to time, which is another way that ethnocide encourages a culture of division and individualism. To counter this, we must practice using and living out the philosophies behind convivir (an earlier edition of The Word) and now moai.

Philosophy as a Practice

I appreciate moai because it is a philosophy you can practice. In the West, philosophy is far too often considered something that exists within books and something to study intensely, but not a discipline with practical applications. In the East, however, philosophy is often something that you do and create in addition to something you study.

Philosophy is the study or practice of loving wisdom, and nothing can be wiser than cultivating a practice for creating a long, healthy, and happy life. Having a group of lifelong friends is only one piece of the puzzle, but an essential piece. We now have a major incentive to cherish our friendships and be the best person we can be.

When I launched SCL, I chose the URL scl.community instead of scl.com because I wanted it to be a sustainable community and not merely an organization. Thinking about ethnocide can make you feel alone, but thinking about Eǔtopia can remind us of the friends, cultures, and communities that are countering ethnocide, and help us create sustainable good places collectively.

Join us for a Cultural Moment of Solidarity:

The Altars Festival is a cross-cultural celebration empowering communities of color and their allies to create home altars depicting their culture, history, ancestors, and departed loved ones. Join us this fall from Oct. 31 - Nov. 2!


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