No Man Is An Island, John Donne’s Meditation 17

If I do not love myself, how can I love others?

Contrary to the philosophies, or, dare I say, the mythologies of our current culture, the truth is that no man is an island unto himself. Despite the current relativistic, cultural arguments that say, “It’s all about me” or, “I did it my way,” or any other social or political variations on that theme, not one of us can live well, much less survive in this world, alone. The 18th Century poet, John Donne’s, insight in his short and famous “Meditation 17” was true long before he wrote those words down for posterity.

In his day, and for centuries before him, a bell ringing at an unusual hour meant that someone had died. You can see this throughout medieval and Renaissance literature. But in this short meditation, Donne has given us a reflection that is rooted deeply in Christian faith and wisdom. It recognizes that every person is a part of the whole, indeed, a part of me, for I am a member of mankind, a child of God. He echoes St. Paul in recognizing that, as members of one body, in Christ, we are a part of, and belong to one another.

What I do must also be done for others and with them and by them, and vice versa. Each one of us, at the same time, remains responsible for our own actions and how they affect the whole body. My charity cannot be what it is supposed to be if I do not see that my life is connected to all other lives. I belong to a supernatural organism. Only when I understand this truth and make it the center of my awareness of myself as a human being in the world can I be true to my brothers and sisters or, indeed, to myself.

If I cannot see the “image and likeness of God” in my fellow human beings how will I ever be moved to serve, to care for, or to love them? Even more importantly, we must be able to see ourselves made in that image and likeness. In truth, most of us do not yet see this truth and as a result we live in a hell of our own making. All one has to do is look at the daily news or at social media. That is as good an image of hell as has ever been created in fiction, myth, or scripture.

John Donne wrote: “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 your own were; any man’s death [or suffering] diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This is just another way of understanding the Second Great Commandment; “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Here is another way to look at it. If I do not love myself, how can I love others? The meaning and purpose of a follower of Christ’s life is tied up intimately with the discovery of this wisdom; that we are not alone, that we are, in fact, a part of one another in Christ, and then, live it out in one’s daily lives.

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