THE ISLAND SYNDROME
Part 1: Understanding the Island Syndrome
(August 12, 2010)
You may be familiar with the following idea. It is taken from an essay referred to as "Meditation XVII", from the book Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. The book was published in 1624, by the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631). Within this essay, Donne writes:
"...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..."
The language is archaic, but the idea is enduring and worth understanding. Whether we realize it or not (and most of the time we don't), every one of us is part of a large collective whole — that is, mankind. Donne asserts that when even a single person dies, we are, to some extent, diminished, as surely as Europe is diminished when the sea washes away a mere handful of earth.
In a practical sense, our culture encourages us to live as if we were self-sufficient individuals, regardless of the fact that we are small, interdependent biological components of a very large whole. And when we live according to cultural norms that, in effect, deny us that which we truly need — connections to others, nutritious food, stimulating information, the nurturing of those who can help us, a congenial mate to share our lives, and so on — we suffer.
Does this mean we should reject technology and modern life? Should we yearn for a world that is simpler, more comfortable, and more human? Not at all. If there is a solution, it is based on an understanding that human beings have always created tools and human culture has always evolved. Such inventions and evolutions have demanded that people adapt and, for the most part, until relatively recently, this was possible. As fast as change might come, and as complicated as our communication and information systems might become, we could, eventually, adjust to most of what was happening around us. If parents had trouble with a strange system, they could at least take solace knowing that their children would become comfortable enough to thrive in the new world.
We have created tools and environments that are so contrary to our basic human needs, it is difficult to feel biologically comfortable.
Since the last quarter of the 20th century, however, things have changed. We have, as a species, created tools and environments that are so contrary to our basic human needs, it is difficult for everyone — parents and children alike — to feel biologically comfortable. Take a close look at the people in your life. Although young people have grown up with the latest communication technology, is it not true that they are having as much trouble feeling calm, centered, and satisfied with their relationships as do their parents?
Indeed, many young people think nothing about using a computer or cell phone as a way of avoiding having to deal with difficult situations in person. For example, it is common for teenagers to use email or text messaging to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Alternatively, imagine the emotional pain a 15-year-old girl experiences when she finds out her boyfriend has dumped her by noticing that, all of a sudden, his Facebook page says he is "single".
Another unfortunate result of having too much communication at a distance is that people do not develop the skills necessary to interact well in person. Nor do they ever master the etiquette used for face-to-face conversations. For instance, have you not noticed that when you talk with teenagers and college students many of them lack the presence of their parents and grandparents? Where, in the world of mobile phones, does someone learn the skill of looking another person in the eye and giving them a firm handshake?
© All contents Copyright 2021, Harley Hahn