In Latin, “insula” means island. In Italian, it’s “isola.” Poet John Donne insists that No Man Is An Island. This perception shows up repeatedly in world literature: (For Whom The Bell Tolls, etc.) But is it true, or not?
Being individuals with our own names, personal histories and Social Security Numbers, we do habitually perceive ourselves as independent agents. We like to feel autonomous. It’s easy to forget how involved with and dependent upon others we are, and we have always been. If it had not been for the carnal intersection of at least two other persons, you’d not be here at all. (It’s always weird to think of mom and daddy having sex. And so, let’s not.) Nor could we have survived childhood without the support of others.
When you were young, you learned to say and recognize your name, and, for a while, even spoke of yourself in the third person. You learned to write your name and earned high praise. Good Boy! Good Girl! Good B.T.Q! We become completely identified with our names, which follow us everywhere – proclaimed when we receive our Nobel Prize or prison term. To experience oneself as separate/identifiable is normal, and understandable. It is expensive, though. The more you experience yourself as separate, the more death devastates. (The only you you know is gone. You think there’s nothing left.)
Still, Donne’s assertion seems untrue in terms of what real islands really are. They seem separate, of course. Experiential bias warps our view. To go from one island to another, you have to fly or swim or sail – to deal with what lies in between – which can be dangerous or get you wet. I remember, as a child, the first time I saw a cross-sectional map in science class. “Well, I’ll be damned,” my brain exclaimed: “Them islands isn’t separate at all! They’re all connected, underneath!”
So, here’s the part that will convince you I’m completely daft. (What’s new?) Over eons, through meditation, drugs, near-death experience, or various epiphanies, millions of people – though only a tiny percentage – have discovered, always with astonishment, that we are all connected at the root. Our psyches intertwine. Or, more precisely, they are one! That makes interpersonal strife, social enmity and warfare seem both grotesque and absurd, like watching a demented dog attacking his own tail, unaware that his “foe” is a part of himself.
When J.H.C. said “Love thy neighbor as you love yourself,” he didn’t go on to say “He IS yourself!!!” JC was far too wise for that. If you make statements which utterly fly in the face of “common sense” (consensual reality) you’ll be seen as a crackpot and quickly dismissed or locked up – or bumped off, like J.C.
Once, in the Honolulu airport, I saw a cross-sectional map of the Hawaiian Islands, each with its own name, identity, and airport. Seen from the side, every island was a tall, fragile spindle of lava just barely poking out above the water. They looked as if the mildest quake could snap them cleanly off, dispelling the illusion of their seeming separateness, as death will do for you and all of us.