A Part of the Main

There is no wider world.  We are it.  We are all we have.

Our friends, our families, our communities, the people we see each day.

We pretend to pledge allegiance to states or countries, even causes, but the reality is this: the circles that matter are small and close.

We may, and should, care about our neighbors and countrymen, but only those close to us are truly important. Whether the artificial allegiance to our country is an intentional manipulation of our minds or a natural outgrowth of our desire for community, I don’t know.  What I do know is this: it IS artificial.

What matters is what’s close by.  Family.  Community.  Friends who would cross the earth to help you in your hour of need.  The people who matter are people whose lives have touched ours in some fundamental way.  Not the people who we elect to political office.  Not the people who keep the trains running or the electricity flowing or the gasoline tanks full. Well, they matter.  But they matter in a purely pragmatic sense; they are not every man in the sense that John Donne suggested; they are not pieces of the continent.  They are not a part of the main.  But Donne was right.  Even though those closest are the only ones who really matter to us, today, the rest will matter when we don’t.

This concept, this idea that there is no wider world, runs counter to what we’ve been taught.  It is contrary to what we’ve been reared to believe, at least those of us whose parents were good progressives who claimed affinity to the Christian faith. We’ve been taught to care for everyone.  At the same time we’ve been taught to gloat as our military strikes another village, killing its inhabitants, thereby protecting us from all manner of horrors too vile to imagine.   Just the facts should inform us; someone is lying to us!  Someone is telling us a story!

I believe the natural state of humanity is to care about fellow humans.  And fellow creatures who roam the earth.  And I believe the natural state of humanity is to treat the earth and skies with dignity as we understand it.  If we don’t know our actions are fouling the planet, we’re not bad for taking those actions; we’re ignorant.  We’re not willfully attacking humanity and its supportive life forms.

John Donne engaged in wishful thinking.  He deceived himself into believing the world around him…us…mattered and that we mattered just as much.  Listening to the memorial remembrances today on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it occurred to me that a very few people will outlast their bodies.  JFK was one of them.  But he participated in a charade, too.  He, and all presidents before and since, have acted. They want us to behave as if everything is all right.  But we know it’s not.  This is humanity. There are chinks in the armour.  There’s crazy in the attitude.  There’s blood waiting to be let.  But, wait, maybe Donne said it the right way; maybe we have been interpreting it the wrong way.  Maybe what he meant was this:

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 if a manor of thy friend’s
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.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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