There was a time, long ago, where we were able to claim that “no man is an island.” This phrase, popularized by the movie ABOUT A BOY, was actually written by John Donne in his Old English prose “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions:”
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; 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.
Quite obviously, Donne suggests that despite any sort of independence or loneliness a person might experience, that we are all always part of something larger.
I do a lot of thinking about how in modern Western society though we have more ways to communicate with each other than ever before, we actually distance ourselves from our fellow man. It’s as if we do everything we can to place a gap between ourselves and those who seemingly have no impact on our lives.
There are plenty of factors that tie in here: familiarity (with always being around people), lack of need (of the company or skills necessary for survival), distrust (of anyone you do not know). A hundred plus years ago, not only was it more of a novelty to be around people, but we depended much more on others for entertainment and necessary things like food.
Today, although you need to get your food from the supermarket and must encounter the clerk, you can do so without any sort of real conversation. We’re so used to being around strangers that we look entirely beyond them.
I was walking through the cemetery this past weekend and came across a man who seemed quite nice. He was sitting on the grass, stripped down to the bare minimum (as it was incredibly hot) and was apparently conversing animatedly with a headstone.
My obvious reaction was to give him some berth, out of respectfulness and modern apathy. But he turned to me, held a mickey up in this hand and said in an excellently thick Russian accent, “Would you like some vodka?”
I broke into a grin as I kept on walking. “No thanks!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you!”
“Okay then. Have a good weekend.”
It’s funny, the one thing that makes my day is the genialness of complete strangers. It’s such a novelty, and though I attempt to smile at the people I walk by, I am just as guilty as others in my quest for solitude in public.
As I left the Russian fellow behind, I instantly wished that I had the – what? Guts? Kindness? – to go sit with the man and hear his story. Not only was he a living stereotype, but seemed like a genuinely interesting person. (You’d have to be to be drinking, mostly naked, in a cemetery!)
If this had transpired a hundred years ago, would I have stopped for a sip of vodka? I can’t help feeling that I would have. And I can’t help feeling a sense of loss with this lack of comfort in the companionship of a stranger.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve passed on the chance of a possible stimulating evening with someone I didn’t know. A couple months ago, by chance I ran into an older, seemingly well-off fellow who was looking for someone to help him write a book. He was from the States and had supposedly known Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and a bunch of that gang. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for a Rat Pack-loving writer such as myself, right?
After talking about the serendipitous meeting with some of my friends, they told me he sounded suspicious, and that he was probably making his claims up. They were uncomfortable about the prospect of me meeting up with this man, and in turn I became uncomfortable with it.
The man was certain that his book would be a big hit, and even if the project wasn’t for me, I know I would have enjoyed listening to what he had to say. Instead, I’ve lost his number and have (almost) never looked back.
Perhaps we all are part of a bigger picture, living cogs in a society that depends on the efficiency and ignorance of its workers. But on a more personal level, I can surely tell you that I’m starting to feel like a damned island.