Thursday, July 12, 2007

No Man is an Island

Certainly, you've heard this phrase. My mention of it here was inspired by back and forth commenting between Richard and myself a couple of posts below, here. This phrase is also particularly ringing true in my life right now, as I am feeling incredibly inspired by the opportunity to actively better humanity. And really, we can't fully enjoy the experience of living a fulfilling life unless we first give ourselves completely to it.

In its full origin: "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -John Donne (1572-1631) as appearing in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII.

Essentially, the meaning, as simply (and thus, perfectly) as it is stated on The Phrase Finder, is that "human beings do not thrive when isolated from others." We often feel that we should be able to do it all on our own, that we are inadequate because we don't possess "enough" strengths to do it all. In my own life this burdened notion has plagued my abilities considerably. For so long, I have beaten myself up over the characteristics I don't possess, rather than manifesting those I do. I also have a great tendency to turn inward and can easily isolate myself in thought. But there comes a point in which even I am now aware, that too much isolation and introspection can be unhealthy. We belong to a community for a reason. We are not here to act out our own desires all the time. Anyone who has had a bout of utter selfishness (and really, haven't we all?!) realizes how completely empty it is. I think it is important to look inward but not only so that we should know ourselves better but for the ultimate end of being willing and able to more fully contribute our strengths and character to the collective community.

No man is an island. Think about that phrase. An island. Even a big island is very limited. Without a doubt "successful" people (however you personally define that word) do not achieve such success entirely on their own. The support and encouragement of others made their success possible. It is ridiculous to esteem Donald Trump or Michael Jordan solely because they worked hard to develop themselves. Their success is due in large to the fact that they effectively utilized the talents of others, they relied on support and encouragement from others, and called upon role models for inspiration and resilience. It reminds me of the history of the yeoman farmer, particularly in the Appalachians. Each of these freeholding farmers had their own particular expertise in a specific crop/farm/ability. They lived in clusters so as to benefit from one another's expertise. A dairy farmer, a sheep herder, a blacksmith, seamstress, etc. They each manifested their abilities to not only make a living for themselves but so as to effectively participate in a community. This made each member of the community immensely valuable.

Now there is undeniably this fierce value of individualism. So often, society expects the impoverished to bootstrap themselves out of their situation, as though these impoverished people have all the means and opportunities that we do. Think for a minute...what if the coffee growers in Brazil or the dairy farmers in America stopped producing, regardless of government or corporate intervention? We may not realize, but we rely on the efforts and expertise of others for almost everything we have. We also may not full realize that these people are often exploited for our benefit. But it doesn't have to be this way. And I am not saying that awaress of such requires that we relinquish our individual hopes and desires altogether. But why can't we help one another achieve such? Isn't it much easier to build a house with the help of others?

Collective consciousness is key. But we must first, as individuals raised in a society that esteems individualism, establish an individual awareness that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And that something, humanity, must be nurtured above all else. We cannot realize our full potential in isolation.


carra said...

As a lonely owl myself, more into self analysis then world analysis, I have to agree I couldn't be on our own. Just the thought of being on my own all the time gives me shivers. It is a very kind way to look at it, I believe that if I won't help anyone, no one will help me, and that is my part of not being an island. We all are a part of a continent aren't we?
But to start with the whole idea, we all have to remember that charity starts at home. Helping your brother or sister, mother, father, child and so on is just as good as helping a stranger in the street or even in another continent.

We can not change the world without changing ourselves. We have to give to the closest ones, before giving to the distant ones. And once we achieve that we will be aware, of what it really takes to change the world.
Everyone has to start with the first step, and the first step is changing yourself, however easy it may seem, it is not.
Before giving everything away to help others you have to value yourself as a member of the community.
When everyone will know their value, the world will become a better place. But to be honest, as awfull as this will sound it is all just rethorical.
The people of the world will never raise together to make it a better place, because of their personal beliefs and differences that they created theirselves.
That is the very dissapointing reality.

Cavalock said...

but sometimes you wished you were an island. you don't need anyone. you are dependent on anyone and no one is depending on you.

its an uneasy kind of freedom. you don't want to feel needy, too helpless sometimes. Turn off your feelings and nothing will ever bother you again.

b said...

Carra...i have only known you to be a caring person. in no way do i propose that those of us who are introspective are weak or selfish. being introspective is a tremendous gift if we utilize it properly.

i absolutely agree that kindness must exist in our daily lives and interactions before we can expect to use it for some greater good. however, i also believe that we shouldn't wait for things at home to be "ideal" before we stretch ourselves for others.

i believe that we cannot work towards changing the world without being changed ourselves, which may be a different perspective than you initially posed in your comment. i think we have to be willing to change and embrace life fully before we can make considerable change. but certainly, even a $50 donation to a worthy cause makes a difference, even if the person giving it doesn't really think much about the act or implications. however, i think that if we just start making small strides to help others (without expectation of return), we should feel a great sense of satisfaction and that seems to bring about a change of self and hopefully, a greater tendency to give more of ourselves.

i certainly don't believe that anyone has to give everything away in a mission to save the world. i think that is particularly the daunting notion that prevents people from doing anything substantial. we all are not called upon to be mother teresa. but making sacrifices in a person's life to improve the lives of others is so fulfilling. and you are already doing that in your own life. if you worked full time, certainly your husband's health might be much worse. you wouldn't be there for him.

we each have our own abilities for a reason, beyond just personal gain. and we are each drawn to different causes. my sister is a huge animal advocate and so her acts of charity are focused in that direction. my mother is fiercely catholic, so her efforts go into making rosaries and buying supplies for impoverished catholics around the world. my other sister gives to habitat for humanity regularly. i prefer literacy and basic needs projects. there is a great beauty in the simple reality that our individual preferences and abilities are significant on a level much greater than ourselves.

giving doesn't require that we compromise ourselves. we can utilize our strengths and passions toward a collective good. you and i are both writers. we are both literary and introspective. neither one of us will likely ever be lobbyists for humanitarian efforts. neither one of us is really that aggressive by nature. but we certainly possess the ability to write letters or speeches, to initiate change on more of a one-on-one level. and you already do this. think about that book you passed on to me to review for that man seeking publication? there is a tremendous sense of selflessness and alturism in that act.

we do need to change ourselves. we need to shake so much of what we've been taught to believe about the world. but we are a work in progress through the day we die. and i don't think we can fully change for the better unless we initiate change on a greater scale. and this is a huge shift for me. i too used to fiercely believe that i had to be this pillar of utter integrity before i could do anything substantial for others. and this meant that i couldn't make mistakes and with each mistake, i felt resigned to believe that i could never be that person of integrity. and this crippling notion is so unnecessary. i am a compilation of many mistakes and failings in my own life. but those mistakes and failings, as well as my successes, make me who i am and those seeming imperfections make me a perfect human being, just as everyone else is.

i look at the united states. here, our government has made a horrendous mess out of iraq. but rather than shrink and be ashamed, as citizens, we need to stand up and take our country in a different direction. the failures of this country fill history but that gives us greater potential to change, particularly as we have the power to do so.

it is rhetorical but as a student of rhetoric, that phrase has come to mean something negative when it really isn't. rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking/writing. of course, persuasive language has been used throughout history to initiate and justify war, etc. but it is also something that is used for altruistic purposes.

the "disappointing reality" that you state feeling is merely perspective. think about it this way...if i keep telling myself or concluding that i will never be a published author, i certainly won't. if we say that the world will never be a better place, it won't. for many months in grad school i was resigned to believe this world was shit and always would be. i hated the awareness of it and felt extremely hopeless and angry. and in that time, i wrote papers to that effect but nothing i did was really bringing about positive change. i would argue with my family and glare at my father or siblings when they would say anything racist at dinners. but that anger didn't produce anything positive.

so, i shifted my persepctive. instead of focusing on all the negative things, i looked at all the beautiful things about humanity. and in doing so, i've become a better person not only for humanity but as you suggest, in my own family and friendships. we often overlook the ripple effect. each act of kindness transfers to another in some way. and i guarantee that living a life devoted to even simple acts of kindness, with a positive view of the world, will lead to a much more fulfilling life than resigning ourselves to see the world as hopeless. so, why should we choose to view the world negatively? it really isn't easier than the alternative.

cavalock...i think that sometimes we want to retreat to an island and there is nothing wrong with that. i appreciate that incredibly, being somewhat of a loner when i am in my most introspective state. but even then, i still drink coffee, eat food, read, am online...and not one of those things is independent. each time i lock myself up with a book, i am connecting with humanity on a particular reading the persepective and experience of another.

of course we don't want to feel too needy or vulnerable. but what is needy/vulnerable about admitting that i don't have a farm to grow coffee, nor do i have the skills or desire to do so. therefore, i am relying on another willingly. that doesn't hurt my sense of independence whatsoever. why should asking a person to help you write a resume or help you move into a new place?

do you really believe that about turning off your feelings? first, that is impossible. a person may come to control their feelings but that doesn't mean they stop feeling. often, these people are overwhelmed by all the feelings they never adequately dealt with throughout their life and one day, they explode...suicide, murder, breakdown, identity crisis, etc.

even if it were possible to shut off one's feelings, why would this be desirable? so nothing could bother you again? don't you think that by denying yourself the feeling of pain, you will inevitably diminish/deny your ability to feel happiness? this "existence" is not desirable to me. i want to live and living means experiencing suffering and sadness just as much as happiness and love.

Tumuli said...

"And really, we can't fully enjoy the experience of living a fulfilling life unless we first give ourselves completely to it."

So true. Yet I have desired both unity and isolation, sometimes simultaneously...

b said...

tumuli...i crave both unity and isolation simultaneously at times too. i naturally have an inclination to isolate or withdraw for the most part but i am starting to really value that even in isolation, i am connecting with others. more than anything, i think striking a balance is key. too much or too little introspection can be very unhealthy.

i also try to manifest my isolation now. it is fine to use this time for selfish reasons but to an extent. after a certain point i find myself thinking about how this isolation can make me a better person for the world. and this can be as simple as kindness.

Richard said...

I agree, which is why I so very much like this quote from Isaiah Berlin (given before in another comment): "Men are rational, they do not need control; rational beings have no need of a state, or of money, or of law-courts, or of any organised, institutional life."

Because I believe that justice, human excellence, is something innate and within the grasp of each individual.

I tend to be considered a loner, or, at least, not a warm, fuzzy, cuddly socialite because I am not afraid to be on my own. This occurred more from attrition rather than volition: if I wanted to do something (say see a movie) and no one else was interested, then I went on my own (something Sofia, until recently, would never imagine doing).

I also have numerous examples when I found my trust and reliance on others was misplaced, not necessarily because of betrayal (that has rarely happened to me), but more that their passion and care was not as great as mine (an example that springs to mind is a final year electronics project at college. I had two project mates. I did the circuit design, I did the wiring diagrams, I bought all the parts (so much that the suppliers asked I had a business number). All they had to do was follow the assembly instructions - not exactly rocket science. There were so many errors, that I would have been better off doing it on my own).

An ideal world would be a cooperative world, where people work, help and support each other. The reality is that people use and exploit each other; they jealously guard information. Competition is encouraged and deemed to be the best way of getting things done. I disagree, I think cooperation is a better model, where people act together to achieve things.

Of course, there are lots of people who behave as though they are super power islands, acting without regard for others personal space and imposing their will.

We know people like that: the teenagers next door who decide that frequent loud parties are their right, the guy at the cottage who buys a sea-doo and races it and down the lake, the neighbour who reckons running a chain saw at 5 A.M. is acceptable, the person upstream who pours their waste water into the river, the person who decides to setup a big smoky BBQ next to you on the beach, the cigar chomping tourist at the next table, etc.

As far as I am concerned, people are free to do pretty much what they want on condition that they do not invade my personal space - whether that space is physical, auditory, visual, or olfactory. I also believe that people have a right to take what they need, without spoiling it for the rest. I believe people have no right to deny fundamental resources to anyone (I am very opposed to bottled water as a commodity - there are circumstances when bottled water makes sense, but not as a replacement for tap water). I do not believe in people's right to exploit willy-nilly whatever resource they see fit - take what you need, leave something for others.

The problem with any system is that whenever people are involved they break down. In a competitive system, we get people working against one another like hungry dogs fighting over a scrap of meat. In a cooperative system, we get people who slack off and let others pick up their slack.

So, fundamentally, it requires a change in humans. And, as you've mentioned before, human history is not terribly inspiring.

Gee, I am so gloomy :P

Actually, my mood is pretty good.

b said...

richard...i too believe a cooperative world would be far more beneficial than a competitive one. and all to painfully, i realize the exploitation of others. but i don't believe that is an innate exploit others for personal gain. i strongly believed that is learned. the loud teenage neighbor, the asshole driver...their selfishness and disrespect comes from experience.

i like your example of the electronics project. i don't necessarily believe your trust was misplaced however. i just think, as you stated, you were just more invested in the project than they were. and there would be projects in which one of them might excel and you would likely take less initiative for lack of interest.

i think that absolutely, we should respect that we each have different pursuits and passions. and yes, we should not berate people for being different on any grounds. just because we don't fully understand differences amongst fellow humans doesn't mean we can't accept and appreciate them.

i agree completely that no human should be denied basic rights and no one should exploit another human being. the impulse to exploit or disrespect another comes from a deeper side of self...someone out of control who acts out disrespectfully as a false means of securing control.

i think that we all possess areas/moments of "slacking off" and areas in which we go beyond what is expected of us. If we all were innately drawn to art, who would build dams or harvest crops? i may be a good teacher, artist, baker. but if you put me in a room with women to sew things, I would be a mess. thus, i think the key to a cooperative society would be to adequately utilize people's talents and passions. you may think that no one would step forward to build houses or do the "dirty" jobs but i think you'd be surprised.

i think the daunting aspect of changing society is tied to a very long history of exploitation. where exactly did we go wrong? in part, i believe the formation of religion as a formal structure has much to do with it. if you think that history is full of oppression and domination, i encourage you to read joseph campbell's the power of myth.

no, human history is not terribly inspiring. in fact, it is highly depressing. but that is not where i seek my inspiration from. i seek it and find it in the face of every human being. i seek and find it a glorious harvest moon, a gray day, the autumn leaves. it often seems overwhelming...trying to untangle the good from the bad. but it really isn't. it just requires a deep and silent acceptance.

you don't seem gloomy at all to me! in fact, i would venture to say that in this comment, i see a hopeful side to you...recognition of an ideal world. just because changing the world seems so daunting doesn't mean we have to resign ourselves to contribute to the negativity.

Richard said...

Most sins in human history are committed in the name of blood (starting with the smallest unit and expanding outward through relatives, to tribe, to nation).

Religion has as its strength the power to unite non-bloods together.

However, aside for Islam at the moment, religion is losing to other ideologies.

French Revolution: the ideology of liberte, egalite, fraternite
Russian Revolution: the ideology of Marx
Second World War: genetic / cultural superiority
Cultural Revolution: the ideology of Marx
The Cold War and all its skirmishes: capitalism versus communism.

Except for Europe in the middle ages and increasingly Islam now, religion has not been much of a player in world problems. It has been discarded by most enlightened people in favour of better ideological tools.