Every Man is an Island

by Pamela Goode

Islands

I’m using again the fabulously illustrative art of Patricia Helsing, because it so perfectly sums up my thoughts over the past week. No doubt it was inspired by John Donne’s famous quote written over 400 years ago, but in this age of Every Man for Himself, It’s All About Me, What About My Needs, and Dog Eat Dog, what is our current concept of the Self in relation to Others?

If you’re a Lostie, and I am, you know that Other is a synonym for Evil. Have we so embraced this philosophy that it’s now appearing in our common story? I had a long talk yesterday with a wiser-than-many 20 year old, lamenting that he had spent three hours in deep and personal conversation with a brilliant young college student who felt he had no one else to talk to. The boy’s pent-up anger and frustration was clouding his ability to make decisions that would be no-brainers on a clear-headed day, and his social life, liver, and studies were suffering. We’ve heard this story before, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. But what are we doing about it?

I made a couple of practical suggestions, but of course, my stepson wasn’t really coming to me for help. He just needed a willing ear as he struggled through his own feelings on the island issue: What, exactly, is one human’s obligation to another?

I have to admit that hearing his questions and mental wanderings was the highlight of my week, because I deeply believe that we all need to struggle a little more with life. I believe it’s the struggle that makes our passage real and meaningful.

But then there’s that other thing too. Witness. You struggle. I witness. I struggle. You witness. It’s something we just don’t think about in the making of daily To Do lists. But let’s face it, just as we all need a spotter from time to time as we leap through life’s hoops, so we all need to return the favor. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s time consuming and there’s not one ounce of glory. But I do wonder which tasks I can do today that are more important than truly listening, than being the momentary recipient of another’s story.

And what, really, are we talking about when we consider stepping off of the Me Island for a fraction of each day to spend, say, 15 minutes doing something that requires no heroics, no cash outlay, no chunk of carpool time, and no brain power, but adds neither cash, prestige, nor a resume bullet to our Island Stash?

Is “Not My Problem” a mantra we’ll look back on with pride during our final days?

What if we each pledged to spend a scant fifteen minutes each day to listen to another? I don’t mean the neighbor who fastens you with a glistening eye to recant again the details of that gall bladder operation in 1982 and sends us running in fear of lost time. Maybe someone you work with, or someone in the grocery line who seems a little frazzled. Sometimes, “You know, I’m having a bad day” is enough sharing to ease the breath a little. Sometimes it takes a little more.

And sometimes listening hurts. But in that moment of pain for another is our humanity. Heartache is a powerful impetus for action. Is that the fear? Being moved to action?

When I first heard John Donne’s words “No Man is an Island”, I assumed, perhaps like most, that he was speaking to the human family: “”Hey, we’re not alone! The good guys have got our backs!” When Simon and Garfunkel sang “I Am a Rock”, they spoke conversely of the island mentality as a good thing, a safe thing, a shark-infested 360 degree protection against the pain of interpersonal relationships. “Nobody has your back, so seek cover.” That’s the concept most of us chose to embrace.

But Donne’s real meaning? “No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind . . . .” What he was actually saying was “Get the hell off your Me Island and go help that other guy. No One of us is as good as All of us together.” I wonder what would happen if Jack lumbered over and gave Ben a big old bear hug?