Beyond the Reef, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the courage of Moana, a young Polynesian girl who answers the call of her heart to break from tradition and safety to save her people from destruction. Today, we return to her story for a closer look at one of the most important moments in her journey.

A disastrous first attempt to restore the Heart of Te Fiti ends in Moana and Maui being soundly defeated, and Maui’s magical hook—the source of his magical powers—being badly damaged. Angry and afraid losing what makes him unique if his hook is destroyed, Maui abandons the quest and Moana. Moana suffers a crisis of confidence and asks the ocean to release her from a mission she no longer believes she can complete. Grieving her defeat, Moana sits alone and weeps.

It is in this moment, when all hope seems lost and Moana believes she has failed everyone she loves, that a gentle voice speaks from the other end of the boat. Moana’s beloved grandmother Tala, who believed in her and encouraged her to follow her heart, returns in spirit to remind Moana who she is. As Moana reconnects with her grandmother, she is reminded of her own strength, courage, and determination. Sense of purpose renewed, she resumes her quest and is ultimately successful in restoring Te Fiti’s Heart.

There are so many things I love about this scene. It is a make-or-break moment for Moana as she confronts her mistakes, hubris, and misplaced faith in another. For a little while, it looks like the weight of these realizations may break her. But with a gentle and loving smile, Tala asks Moana to remember who she is. As she recalls what she has learned, how far she has come, the legacy of courage passed down from her ancestors, and her own bravery in confronting the unknown, Moana realizes that she has always been enough—with or without the aid of a demigod. She embraces her wild, courageous heart as she triumphantly cries out her name and dives into the ocean to retrieve the Heart.

Moana’s recognition of her own strength, resiliency, and accomplishments is a powerful moment. She claims and embraces her strengths instead of fighting them, and in doing so revives her own fading determination. She releases the guilt of being drawn to the ocean against her family’s wishes and embraces her destiny as a voyager and heroine. She becomes more truly Herself. Regardless of whether she succeeded in her quest to restore the Heart, this moment will always be the moment when she became a heroine for me.

While it is her own acceptance of herself that leads Moana to step into her role as a heroine, she could not have done it without the loving support of her rebellious, “village crazy lady” grandmother. Tala’s faith in Moana is a constant in life and beyond, and lending Moana that faith is part of what helps Moana reconnect with herself. Moana and Tala’s relationship is a beautiful one marked by unconditional love, support, and encouragement. When Moana promises to carry her grandmother in her heart, I tear up Every.Single.Time. Tala’s belief in Moana is instrumental in Moana learning to believe in herself, and it is a wonder to behold.

So many of us doubt our capabilities. We believe those who tell us we can’t do things, that we aren’t strong enough, that pressure us back into roles that don’t fit when we try to make a change. It can be overwhelming and confidence-shaking to pursue something we believe is important and needed, only to be ignored, rejected, or criticized for doing so. Having someone in our lives can be a saving grace to keep us on the path of trying to heal our world.

In many ways, Tala reminds me of my own grandmother. My grandmother was a loving, deeply caring, and accepting person who welcomed everyone with open arms. She passed away when I was in college, and her loss was devastating. At the visiting hours for her funeral, in the dead of a bitterly cold northern winter, the line of mourners wrapped around the block and beyond. She was widely loved and deeply mourned. I still miss her now, years later, and I credit her unconditional love and acceptance as one of the factors that has helped me build up resilience in my life. I carry her in my heart always, and this scene from Moana brings her to mind every time. I am grateful beyond words to have had someone like her in my life.

Sometimes, what makes the difference between an emotionally abused or neglected child growing up to abuse and neglect others or choosing a different path is having someone like Grandmother Tala in their lives. Someone to remind us of our intrinsic value and worth, of our strengths and of how far we’ve come. When we feel defeated or weak, or when we begin to doubt ourselves, we need someone to embrace us and remind us of who we are.

Maybe you didn’t have a Tala, but you had a best friend who listened when you really needed to talk. Maybe you have a mentor at school or work who’s become a confidant and champion. Or maybe you have a sibling who encourages you to keep at it when you feel like giving up. Perhaps you have been Tala for someone else, and you’re still waiting to find that person for yourself. Whoever your person is (or your people are), whether they are here with you or here in spirit, carry them in your heart for when you need a reminder of who you are. And if you are still waiting for your Tala, take heart. Your story isn’t over yet. Lift a hand to the horizon, measure the stars, and set your course. Your Tala will find you, and you will find yourself.