Tuesday, July 3, 2012

No Man (or Woman) is an Island

John Donne wrote the famous words, "No man is an island, entire of itself..." We are all, he said, involved when the bell tolls for one individual; each death touches us because we are involved in mankind. (Meditation XVII)

This is not a sentimental bit of poetry from the early 1600s; he truly believed in the greater good, the unity of believers of which he was a part known as Christendom.

Our multicultural world has replaced Western Christendom, but the idea that we are all in this together, in the same boat, as the cliche has it, remains valid. Obama has spoken of this many times, yet no amount of speeches will convince some people to examine their radical individualism, which I see as a great social evil.

Although I hate to bring up the health care debate, it provides a salient example: nearly every day, I encounter a posting or letter to the editor which says, in effect, "I have good health insurance and I don't want to hear any more about government brainwashing." Or "socialism." They resent a health-care plan for everyone because they don't want to be reminded of their obligation to be part of a whole greater than their own individual world.

There may be many valid objections to Obamacare; what concerns me is the dismissal of the moral obligation to care for those whose lack of insurance costs us all in the end, financially as well as morally.

The conservative political agenda seems to be all about the individual, his or her rights and freedoms, which are guaranteed by the Constitution; but as Robert Bellah and others have long noted, respect for individual rights must be balanced by a concern for the common good. The whole (nation) is only as strong as its parts (citizens).

"A man alone is in bad company," Jacques Cousteau once said: this is not a religious sentiment. The isolated individual, cut off from family and community, lacking love in the broad sense in which Dante meant it when he connected love and justice in his Comedy, is prone to do evil: consider the loners out there and the violence that we often learn about too late. Read the powerful novel by Russell Banks, Affliction to see how male violence in particular destroys.

Life is not all about me, as our consumer culture keeps preaching; it's about us. Is it too late for our diverse, multicultural society to re-learn this essential lesson?

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