[Essay] No man is an island.

John Donne, the English metaphysical poet (d.1631), wrote these famous words, stressing the interdependence of the human race.

The death of any man, he continues, ‘diminishes me’, so never seek to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee’.  The argument is that individually we owe everything, or almost everything, to human solidarity. The exemptions to the principle merely serve to prove the rule. Our own individual contributions add to the sum total of knowledge, experience and insight which in turn add to the pool available for others to draw on.

This dependence is most obvious in man’s early days. To state that a child depends on its parents for everything goes without saying, and where a child is deprived of parental care, for whatever reason, immense harm results. Yet, wise parents avoid domination and seek to foster independence in the child while providing a secure background. This attitude, in fact, strengthens the relationships within the ideal nuclear family, so that often three, sometimes four generations are able to make positive contributions to each other’s’ live.

In countries where there is sexual equality, the interdependence of two married partners, both emotionally and practically, remains the norm, though there are minority groups which challenge the desirability of the married state. For some time, in the West, the creation of a home has required two incomes, generally for mortgage payments. Widespread unemployment, due to the world recession, has often left the female partner as the breadwinner and has therefore led to a role reversal. Though unnatural, this can be made to work. None of this matters where the married state, or even a strong partnership without marriage, is seen as a lifelong relationship. Mutual loyalty is the key to success and to the happiness of children.

Employment provides another example of the crucial nature of interdependence. Even where craftsmen in various trade personally carry out every process from raw material to finished product, the supply of raw materials and the final marketing situation are in the hands of others. In other jobs, joint action at every stage is critical, as on the car assembly line. This is, even more, the case when the jobs are hazardous. The miner, the crewman of a lifeboat, the trapeze artist, the policeman, the fireman, the soldier and many others rely on their ‘mates’ to ensure safety and help in dangerous situations.

Wartime enhances the spirit of human solidarity both in the armed services and among civilians. The two world wars brought civilians together to such a degree that social and political barriers between classes and individuals are broken down. Thankfully, many of these barriers were not reinstated when peace came. Sadly enough, all wars produce refugees and displaced persons, and often a situation in which a return home is impossible. On humanitarian grounds, the collective consciences of enlightened countries allow at least a restricted degree of resettlement and hopefully a welcome for these unfortunate people.

Sports provide another example. In team events, interdependence goes without saying, but nobody can reach the highest level of individual sports without the support of others, often family members, and the expertise of coaches.

People tend to band together to produce solidarity in the sphere of both political and of industrial reform. In a free society, the powers of a political party and of a trades union depend on organisations and loyalty. Advances both in democracy and in workers’ right will always depend on these factors. Even religion is more than a personal relationship with God. The Second Christian Commandment is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’

The principal also applies in the realm of knowledge. Modern scientific research is a matter of teamwork, and the outstanding intellects of our daily work from the base of discoveries of their predecessors, even when principals enunciated in the past are found to be inadequate, flawed, or actually false. Hawking would have been nowhere without Einstein, who would have been nowhere without Newton.

The human race is perhaps unique in that he or she can suffer emotionally and spiritually from sadness, disappointments, shame and bereavement, some of these things can never be overcome, but at least the support of others helps us to live with them.

Few of us would care to be marooned on a desert island, even given a comfortable existence. As the Christian bible reminds us in more places than one: ‘You are members one of another’.

 

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