by Rich Mullins
Release Magazine March/April 1996
This phrase - both troublesome and comforting, yet beautiful for the power of its straightforward witness of truth - is attributed to John Donne. He may have been quoting someone else when he penned it and made this wording permanent, but even if he didn't get the words from someone else, the ideas are certainly implicit in Paul's letters and John's gospel. Wherever it originated, this famous line has had an enduring impact on western civilization - our political philosophies, our theology, our arts, commerce, and culture.
So, what is hard to understand then is this: If we are not islands, why do we feel so alone? If we are "part of the main," why are we so often in a condition of isolation? Why is it that in spite of - or sometimes, more tragically, because of -5 our most gut-wrenching efforts to experience a sense of belonging and to participate in the sharing of camaraderie or friendship or love, we experience a deep, disturbing alienation? The sense of aloneness permeates our existence. Sometimes it subtly, almost imperceptibly crouches in the shadows - sometimes it dominates, ruthlessly marching like Sherman across every front of our lives.
Or more important (and more disturbing), why would any answer to this question give us little or no consolation? Why does "knowing why" offer so little relief? Why is that we were created with a need for explanations that pales beside our need for belonging? Why are all the answers - so easy to get, to give, to figure out or make up - so unsatisfying, and our need for intimacy - so hard to give , to find, to share, so impossible to take - so necessary for a satisfying life?
I cannot answer this. What I do know is that, feel it or not - no man is an island, we are not alone. My failures, my successes, my strengths and weaknesses reach beyond me - they affect people around me. Whether or not I feel close, my life - every life - touches other lives. We are joined in a responsibility to together make this world a good one for all of us. Each of us warms the world or chills it inasmuch as we offer or withhold respect, hospitality, encouragement, love, or truth. In that sense we are all parts of each other's well-being or sickness, and we affect the climate that we all share.
But we are also alone. "Each heart knows its own bitterness, and none else can share its joy." (Proverbs 14:10) We each have some identity that is separate (and that separates us) from the community. We are individuals, unique in ourselves. We are responsible for our choices, capable of amazing creativity, loved by the God who made us and wrote our names - not the names given us by others, but the names given us by our Creator - on a white stone to be given on the other side. (Revelation 2: 17)
So, let us love one another, enjoy each other's company, share in the common work, endure each other's failures. This will not cure our aloneness, so let's not ask that of each other. Let's learn to not be afraid of a very necessary aloneness. With others and without them we are at home. In both their company and our solitude we will meet God.