(No) Man Is an Island

By

I have a memory burned into my mind of one of the last times I talked to my father – this was shortly after my parents’ separation after 25 years of marriage and just before God told him to kill me, my siblings, and my mom. We were standing in the nearly bare dining room of the house I grew up in, a room filled to overflowing with good memories from my childhood, memories of laughter and safe places and love. The only items in the room were my old stereo system that was left behind because it only worked half the time, sitting on the floor to my left, a cluttered desk in the corner across from me, and a folding table set up in the middle of the room, where the dining room table used to sit, piled high with several weeks worth of mail and old newspapers.

I was desperately searching for something to say, something that might make him reconsider his actions and attitudes, and I realized I didn’t have any memories of him ever having any close friends, no one who knew his secrets. And so I tried to ask him about it, and then blurted out a quote from John Donne, “No man is an island.” Caught off guard, he stammered for a moment, and then came out with, “Yes, yes he is.” And I was left with nothing else to say.

In the chapter “Presidents I Have Known,” in his new book The Yellow Leaves, Frederick Buechner writes about seeing Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was a boy. “Even all these years later I can still remember the moment when the double doors of the elevator rumbled softly apart and there was Franklin D. Roosevelt framed in the wide opening. He was standing between two men, the taller of whom, my mother whispered, was one of his sons. Each of them had hold of him under one of his arms, and I could see that if they let go of him, he would crumple to the ground on legs as flimsy as the legs of the Sleepy Sam dolls in their seersucker pajamas that Jamie and I took to bed with us at night. He was the most important man in the Mayflower Hotel. He was the most important man in the world. But I could see with my own eyes that if he didn’t have those two men to help, he would be helpless.”

Buechner continues that story about Roosevelt a couple pages later, after writing about his father’s suicide when he was ten years old. “What I learned for the first time from that glimpse I had of him in the elevator is that even the mightiest among us can’t stand on our own. Unless we have someone to hold us, our flimsy legs buckle. My father made his way down the two flights of stairs as quietly as he could, [turned on the Chevy,] then sat on the running board and waited. When he was discovered an hour or so later that morning, he was crumbled over like Sleepy Sam.”

It’s hard – damn hard sometimes – to share who you are with those close to you, especially at the end of a long week, a hard month. It’s less work, or so we try to tell ourselves, to keep it bottled inside, to pretend we don’t have struggles or doubts or frustrations. To try and hide that there are times when it takes every ounce of strength we have to keep holding on to hope, to believe in something more. But the cost of hiding ourselves is too great, both to ourselves and to those around us. We must, for no less reason than the sake of our very souls, acknowledge that we cannot make it on our own.

So help us, God.


26 Comments

  1. euphrony

    Great thoughts, Stephen. None of us can do much on our own – we all rely on a multitude of others, whether we acknowledge them or not, to live our lives. Thanks for the reminder that sharing burdens, having friends close by in life, is essential.

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Stephen,

    It’s a paradox, isn’t it – our completeness in Christ, that irrefutable fact that in Him we are complete, whole persons, and at the same time we need one another, just as my mouth needs my hand to feed it, my brain needs my legs for mobility, etc.

    I spent a long time as somewhat of a lone-wolf Christian – reading a lot of Tozer, A.B. Simpson, Norman Grubb, Lewis, George MacDonald, and the like, studying the Bible, and finding fellowship here and there where I could. But in the past four or five years, since I’ve found a church which preaches not only the forgiveness of God, but now that we are “partakers of the divine nature” through our co-death and co-resurrection with Christ, I am growing at a much faster rate. Church on Sunday, and Bible study on Wednesday, both when I’m in town, provide me with a deeper connection. And it’s more than merely psychological; there is a deep knitting together of the Body that happens, and a collective recognition of Christ’s power within each of us, that causes each person to walk away enlivened, empowered. I leave church and Bible study with this mindset: “Got it! I’m gonna trust God, open myself up to Him, and ask Him to work in my life no matter what the cost!”

    Now, I was doing some of that before. But Spirit life is awakened in us to a deeper degree by gathering corporately. There’s just something beautiful that happens in my heart as I gather with people who are deeply interested and committed, people who I begin to know and be known by.

    When I’m out of town too much and miss that fellowship of church and study too often, I begin to wind down – despite my best intentions and personal study and all that – like a Sleepy Sam.

    To any lone rangers out there – find a fellowship. It’s crucial to the walk with Christ.

    Great post, Stephen.

  3. Butch Simmons

    Great insight.
    For many years I struggled with the need for organized religion, until I also found a place that promoted grace and community. To know that you are not alone, nor does God want you to be, is a very “freeing” place to be.Having people in your life that will walk with you is an amazing gift. Also we can not provide the same for others if we are not willing to step away from the island?
    God’s Peace
    Butch

  4. Chris R

    Great post… it is hard to let people in but it is a part of learning to live, learning to be the body of Christ… and only he can truly help us do it.

  5. Mike

    I am in a church regularly but very much alone. Some of my beliefs have caused others to distance themselves from me so that I can’t ask the hard intimate questions without fear of isolating myself. So I pretend. Its lonely pretending. I play church. And I come to the rabbitroom. I was talking to a friend the other day who told me that he had friends but none that he met with on a regular basis and hashed out life. I don’t either and know few who do.

  6. Josh

    For all my years in college I always had somebody around to discuss things with. It was great having so many good friends to talk about tough issues and ask hard questions with no fear of hostility or misunderstanding. We could talk about anything, say anythying, joke about stuff, and be totally honest. It was a great thing I had, but now since graduation i’ve been without it for over a year now. Occassionally i get to reconnect with one of them here and there, but I don’t have that constant feeling of a deeply connected community anymore and I miss it.

    I hate the feeling of isolation I sometimes get in my new town. I mean, I know a lot of people and I have made several new friends, but there’s nobody here that’s interested in questioning things and talking about deeper issues. It feels like every time i try to talk about anything in a way that isn’t singing the praises of everything that comes out of the Christian subculture, I come across as one of those “anti everything” types that nobody likes. I don’t mean to do it, but i’ve always been so used to being able to bring up stuff like that and nobody ever thoght anything of it. Now it’s like everyone thinks i’m just being a contrarian.

    The last big example was when a new friend was going on and on about how great Third Day and Casting Crowns are. I am just not a Casting Crowns fan and I haven’t liked anything Third Day has done since their album “Time”. When I voiced this opinion, I was met with “no, they’re the best in christian music. They’re awesome, there’s nobody doing it better than them. They may not be James Taylor calibre songwriters but they’re doin the Lord’s work and that’s all that matters”. There was so much I didn’t agree with in that statement, but I couldn’t broach the subject for fear of being totally misunderstood. So I just had to smile and nod and change the subject to college football BCS standings.

  7. easton crow

    Mike- Dude, I understand where you are coming from. When God finally brought the guys into my life who could really sit down and hear all the stuff and who would share theirs too, it was like a long drink of water. Keep searching and praying that God will send someone. He will. Then don’t be afraid to ask the intimate questions. It may take some more looking for the right church to be with, too. I went to one for a while where the folks were very nice and welcoming, but we had absolutely nothing in common. Tried a different place, and found the folks I was looking for.
    Josh- I felt the huge loss of community after leaving college as well. It is a massive shift to go from a close group of people all focused on the same thing, with the same basic goals, same rough schedules, and living in a close area to being a person in a house or apartment surrounded by people who don’t necessarily have any of those things with you. There is an intensity of focus in the college setting that is almost impossible to find elsewhere. What it takes outside of it is making the deliberate choice to become part of a community- through church small groups, a hobby, a sports team, etc. I was blessed enough to have both a workplace and a church group where we are very interconnected. It has been God’s way of really reaching out and ministering to me in the very unpleasant year that has been 2008.
    So, that said to you both hang in there and God will send you the friendship you so long for. Go and seek it out.

  8. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Mike, I know how you feel. I remember reading this essay by Michael Spencer last year, and this comment jumping out at me from the comments section: “I sometimes despair of finding a church that teaches the Bible clearly without making every issue a test of orthodoxy.”

    A couple years ago, I was part of a small Bible study led by Mike Card. We were talking about the story of Job, and Mike spent some time talking how the primary mistake Job’s friends made was not sitting with him in silence. Mike said he was thankful that he has friends who will allow him to be wrong, and I’m now thankful of the same thing. Don’t give up hope. I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised by how many people feel the same way, who don’t have the kind of friends they want but aren’t sure how to develop those friendships. So keep trying. There are others out there who need you as much as you need them. Another line from the essay by Michael Spencer that I mentioned above is, “I am far more tempted with cynicism than I am with unbelief.” Cynicism is easy to give in to. But, thankfully, gracefully, it’s not our only choice.

  9. Mike

    Thanks guys. Stephen I’m always afraid that a cynical attitude will overtake my need to have fellowship. I’ve often thought that it would be ok if it were just me and Jesus. The verse that keeps me going is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” As I understand this verse the Glory is the manifestation of God. This means that the hope of the manifestation is an empty me filled with Jesus. So I’ll “keep her steady as she goes.”

  10. Larry

    Mike and Josh,

    Those feelings of isolation and lonliness are unfortunately quite natural. I feel them all the time as well. The fear of rejection is as debilitating as unrequited love or the death of a loved one. Trust that the Holy Spirit will guide you to a place of action and compassion for others. When you find yourself feeling an outsider — particularly at church — make it a point to drop shit and get something done for someone. I’m always amazed at the doors those actions open for me in my journey.

    Larry

  11. Matthew Clark

    Some of what’s being said is sticking to me too. I went through a long ‘loner’ period where I just liked doing everything more by myself. But over the past several years I’m learning to live involved in other people’s lives. Still it is hard. Many of my close friends live quite far away- and I do not enjoy phone conversations. But I definitely feel the need. Being the only person in your life is wearying.

    I spent a frustrating year being angry that people didn’t call me more often. By the end of it I realized that I didn’t really ever call them either. So they should have called me, but also relationships take so much maintenance and personal initiative and risk – especially if we want to get beyond casual acquaintance. There are some friendships in which I really do have to guard myself against bitterness and cynicism and pray for understanding since not everyone does what I wish they would do.

    But to find friendships to truly rest in is wonderful. The in between times are trying.

    As for the Body, I love Romans 12:5 … That the members of the body belong to one another. It seems difficult to be completely “with Jesus” if we are not also with His Body. Everybody loses when we go at it alone.

  12. Tony Heringer

    Good words guys. It is critical to be in community. Without that effort there is no church because we are the church not the building where we might assemble. I pray all who come here would be led to a good local church full of people of all types (encouraging, draining, etc.) becuase God uses us all to shape each other in this context — real, live, human interaction in all its messy glory.

  13. Caroline

    A very timely post. Thank you, Stephen.

    I’m in the college student category, but I’m also currently abroad (studying in France) right now. Unfortunately, I don’t have any particularly close friends in my university group over here — though I do remind myself that the burden is also on me to reach out. As an introvert, I find that rather difficult sometimes.

    On the upside, I have found a local church that I am quite excited to get involved in — it’s small but enthusiastic, gospel-focused and Bible-believing. There are several women there who hope to start prayer groups, which bodes well. After growing up in a wonderful church, it’s strange to be away from it, but I have high hopes for the community at the Eglise Evangelique.

  14. Peter B

    Josh: this may not be timely, and if so, feel free to ignore it.

    During part of my growing (so far), I found that in my desire to connect with people, I treated them as if they were closer than they really were. This “excessive openness”, for lack of a better word, can have the opposite effect — that is, it can drive people away. One particular way in which this manifested itself was in my eagerness to share my opinions, which can come across as negative and overbearing (Solomon was right: a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend).

    The point is that I had to learn to relax and let people in a bit. I’m sure you’re right about a lot of what you’re saying, but so much of it is delivery, i.e. speaking the truth in love. For example, if someone were to extol the virtues of Third Day, rather than saying “I haven’t liked anything they’ve done since…” I would find myself learning to say nothing — just listen — for a while, and then if the opportunity arose, to say something more like “Their Time album was good”.

    Above all — and this is for Mike and anyone else in a drought of Christian friendship — cast your cares on the one who cares for you. Pray earnestly for true fellowship with other believers, even if they’re not quite the sort of people you might choose; this has yielded some wonderful results for me in the past, and now that I’m in a “down time”, I need to start calling upon the Lord’s faithfulness again.

    Stephen, thank you for opening us up to one another by revealing some hard, desperately important truth from your own life.

  15. becky

    Stephen, thank you for this post, especially for your openness and vulnerability. This is something I needed to hear. I have hermit tendencies, and in the past have had to deliberately choose to be involved in activities for the sole purpose of getting myself out of the house and into the company of other people once in a while. I have one friend, especially, with whom I can share most any thoughts or feelings. She tells me when my thinking is drifting toward the self-involved, irrational side. Your post reminds me of how important she is for me in keeping my perspective eternal and godly, instead of being caught up in my own head all the time.

    Mike, I’ve done the “pretending” thing in the past, also. It takes so much energy to keep up that facade. Eventually I just grew so weary from it I had to let it go and be who I am. It’s such a relief. Jesus is so much sweeter to me now, and I’ve found that people like the real person better than that mask anyway. God didn’t make us to be solitary creatures. He will send you a friend in his time. I pray that you will hang in there until he does, and lean on the friend that sticks closer than a brother.

  16. Mike

    Peter, that’s the thing. I feel closer to Christ than I’ve ever been. It seems I’m more open to hear him. I still have dear friends although some have distanced themselves from me they are still kind and I believe that I could call them if I needed them.

  17. Josh

    Peter B,

    That’s the thing man, we were having a conversation about music we like and don’t like. We talked about Journey, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Stone Temple Pilots, Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, Phil Keaggy, Paul Simon, Matchbox 20, Indigo Girls, Tesla, Cheap Trick, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughn, John Mayer, The Alman Bros, and Van Morrison and everything was great We had differing opinions about nearly all of the secular artists that came up and nobody cared who did or didn’t like any of that. Then came the Christian artists. Somebody brought up Third Day’s new Cd and everyone started talking about how great them and Casting Crowns were. Judging by how the discussion had gone so far I saw no danger in saying I didn’t like those two groups. I was quite surprised in the level hostility that comment drew.

    I mean how come I can like or dislike any secular artist I want but I am suddenly met with disdain when I don’t like a particular Christian group?

    It’s these kind of situations that make a guy feel isolated and lonely sometimes. When you feel like you’re finally in a safe situation to let people in and let them see some of your likes and dislikes only to be met with hostility is a hard thing to endure. I love talking about art and music, that’s why i come to the Rabbit Room, so to have to be without any face-to-face interaction on the subject is really tough. I love talking to people who have different opinions that I do, it can spark some really interesting conversation, but I’m in a place where the people don’t like to be disagreed with. They take it personally when I don’t like a Christian band they like, and that’s something I have a hard time getting around.

    I feel like this is turning into a “them vs. me” thing. It’s really not that bad. I really love the people here, otherwise i wouldn’t have taken this job. It’s just that they do things in a way i’m not used to yet. I realize that i’ll just have to get to know them and let them know me a little at a time until we’re all comfortable enough to really talk about things. I really get that, but getting it doesn’t make the process any easier… know what i mean?

  18. Josh

    by the way the “this job” part is a reference to me being the youth/college ministry intern at my church…

  19. Chad

    For the past two years I’ve lived in an apartment by myself and would have never made it without the Lord and a few treasured friends that He had placed in my life a few years prior. Those friends keep me in check and often see the hidden motives of my heart better than I can. I think this is what Paul refers to when he says to “Bear with each other” (Colossians 3:13).

    I am never more arrogant than when I think I can take on life by myself. The following lyrics by Paul Simon are haunting reminder of life alone:

    A winter’s day
    In a deep and dark December
    I am alone
    Gazing from my window
    To the streets below
    On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

    I am a rock
    I am an island

    I’ve built walls
    A fortress deep and mighty
    That none may penetrate
    I have no need of friendship
    Friendship causes pain
    It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

    I am a rock
    I am an island

    Don’t talk of love
    Well I’ve heard the word before
    It’s sleeping in my memory
    I won’t disturb the slumber
    Of feelings that have died
    If I never loved I never would have cried

    I am a rock
    I am an island

    I have my books
    And my poetry to protect me
    I am shielded in my armor
    Hiding in my room
    Safe within my womb
    I touch no one and no one touches me

    I am a rock
    I am an island

    And a rock feels no pain
    And an island never cries

  20. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    You know, Chad, last fall I was listening to The Essential Simon and Garfunkel, and that song came on. I think I hit the repeat button 15 times that night. A good companion song is Tony Bennett’s The Good Life, re-recorded as a duet with Billy Joel on Tony’s newest album.

    So why are we sometimes content with our loneliness? I’m reminded of a quote from John Cleese’s character in the movie Clockwise, “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

    These kinds of songs make great reminders, sometimes.

  21. Mark L.

    Could you explain that quote some more Stephen? Am I right in saying that it means that sometimes we get comfortable in our mess and are afraid to change?

  22. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Mark, I haven’t seen the movie the quote is from, so I’m not sure what the context is in the movie. But yes, I think you’re right in your explanation. It has to do with the attraction of the familiar, and applies to everything from our relationships to our work to wanting to make a difference in our world. We may be miserable in our current position, but it is a miserableness that we have grown comfortable with. We hope for something to happen, for our dream job to open up or a romantic relationship to work out or acquaintances to become friends, and so we reach out. We hope. And we’re shot down. But we decide it’s worth out, so we reach out again, and again, we’re shot down. And so we decide that it was better not to have hoped at all, because after the hoping, we feel the despair even more. We embrace the despair, and promise ourselves that we won’t let ourselves get hurt again, that we won’t hope for anything more. And we somehow convince ourselves that we are still fully alive.

    That’s a danger that, for some of us, is too easy to fall into.

  23. becky

    Interestingly, the discussion on Jason’s post about apples is heading in this same direction. We settle for what is lesser, because it is easier to obtain. We tell ourselves that this existence is enough. That there isn’t really more at all, and that if there were we wouldn’t want it. That this is actually the better, safer, more fulfilling choice. When the truth is that the best day spent in self-imposed isolation pales in comparison to sharing life with friends and loved ones. Getting to that place may mean giving up some things: safety, comfort, certainty of the rightness of my own opinion, time, control over my environement, etc. But we are giving up cold companions for the warmth of real caring and fellowship. It IS worth it in the end.

  24. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Exactly, Becky, it is worth it in the end. I saw you mentioned C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce in Jason’s post about apples. He says so many great things in there along these lines.

  25. Mark L.

    Thank you very much for your response Stephen. For those of us who are easily discouraged (like myself) it was a good reminder to not give up. It is hard to overcome a series of major disappointments (in relationships, situations and ultimately in God). Maybe this is part of what fighting the good fight of faith is all about. It is a struggle, but it is a struggle worth fighting.

  26. becky

    I was thinking this afternoon that “Love is Still a Worthy Cause” by Sara Groves is a perfect song for this discussion. Sums up what I want to say about the topic.

    Have you listed all the times you’ve tried
    Do you call on all your alibis
    When somebody asks the question why are you hiding

    did you feel the pull, did you hear a call
    did you take a chance and lose it all
    do you fear there’s no collateral left for trying

    Friend I know your heart is raw
    But love is still a worthy cause
    Picking up and pressing on
    Oh love is still a worthy cause
    It’s the touch that starts the thaw
    Love is still a worthy cause
    or the word that breaks the pause
    Love

    It’s the beauty in the tales we tell
    It’s the pushing through and ending well
    and finding strength to give ourselves away

    in the midst of passing bravery
    in the face of our own injury
    It’s the constant generosity of grace

    Friend I know your heart is raw
    But love is still a worthy cause
    Picking up and pressing on
    Oh love is still a worthy cause
    It’s the touch that starts the thaw
    Love is still a worthy cause
    or the word that breaks the pause
    Love

    I love because he loved me
    when I had nothing
    I love because he loved me
    when I had nothing
    I love because he loved me
    when I had nothing

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