Tuesday, February 8, 2011

For whom the siren wails

Since I live not far from a hospital, I often hear the siren of a rescue vehicle, and I always stop to listen for a moment, thinking of the emergency professionals rushing to the ER. I think of them and especially of the injured patient, and I think of myself (it could be me). I like to think this brief moment of attention is a prayer; sometimes, I use words, but generally no words are needed, just an awarness that, as John Donne memorably wrote in one of his prose meditations, we are all involved: "ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We are, he went on, all involved in mankind. So when I translate his words into my own context (ask not for whom the siren wails), I know at some level that whoever is in need of emergency care is one of us, part of the whole community of which we, in our separate worlds, are inescapably involved. We must be mindful of suffering.

I recall the reminder from Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart that the American tradition of radical individualism often goes too far: we too easily forget our place in the community. We overlook the greater good, the basic fact that we are all in this together, a point Obama makes in various subtle or overt ways in his speeches.

Today I opened a recent book on Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell: "The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves." This is the opening line of her engaging biography of the 16th century author of the Essays. She refers to bloggers and all the rest of us who seem preoccupied with their own selves, writing or texting about the details of their lives, enjoying life in what Bakewell calls "a shared festival of the self."

Yet, as Thomas Merton and many others have noted, to be alone, in silence, to pray, and to write about one's inner life is to be part of a spiritual community. Bloggers and other writers today, in sharing their personal stories, are helping (I like to think) foster trust and cooperation among peoples. This assumes that the readers of the blogs and articles take time to reflect and respond. It's not all self-indulgence.

As Christopher Jamison writes in Finding Sanctuary, the old meaning of "conversation" is to live with someone, to speak to them based on shared things we all have in common. He is writing about the monastic ideal where a community of monks can express individuality rather than individualism.

What's the difference? Individualism is the problematic me-first attitude that gave rise to Bellah's study years ago and that we see daily in self-preoccupation of many people. It is doing your own thing irrespective of other people. Individuality, Jamison explains, is quite different: it means bringing one's own unique contribution and talent to bear on the life of a community (even if that contribution might be to criticize it in an effort to improve it).

Individualism apart from involvement in a community (whether of church members or politically active organizers or members of a book club) is isolating and ultimately negative. Its ultimate image is found in Dante's hell where the souls are eternally alone, apart from any community (any love). Its real-life manifestation appears too often in our news when we learn of the loner-psychopath (usually a young man alienated from family and friends) who acts out his fear and hatred with violence, shooting a Congresswoman in Arizona, for example.

Are people tuned in to their electronic gadgets totally isolated from one another? To the extent that young people tend not to vote regularly or join churches or political parties, it would seem, as Jamison says, that the global village is fading. But if many, young and older, are willing to work to engage with each other in conversation, using the various media, they can build some kind of community. The blogosphere, in which I play an infinitesimal part, can foster a type of community.

As a result, when they hear the siren, many people may not think of prayer in the usual sense, but they will be mindful of their common link with human suffering. One day, God willing, they may act on this awareness.

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