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 any manner of thy friends 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.
No man is an island. No matter how much we may wish to isolate ourselves from others, we are all part of something bigger than our individuality. It’s inevitable that our life challenges will affect others around us and that we in turn will be affected by what others suffer. That is the price of relationship. It’s the price of choosing to love. The alternative would be to lock ourselves away, and yet even that isn’t a viable solution for survival. Long term solitary confinement had been found to be a terrible burden to bear. We need relationship with others.
During this last month, we were horrified to discover that we were sharing our bed with bedbugs. It’s amazing how much havoc these tiny creatures can cause to a home. We ended up having to pay a professional fumigator and seem to have spent hours washing and cleaning. We had to leave our home for a week and seek refuge with friends. As I write, we’re still surrounded by clothes to be sorted and our bedroom looks as if we’d recently moved house. These pesky creatures, like nits, don’t care about cleanliness. To put it bluntly, they’re just out for your blood!
The biggest problem with these bugs is that they multiply at a remarkable rate. It’s not difficult for them to achieve growth. I couldn’t help taking it as a personal affront that any adults in my bed were multiplying at a rate of up to seven times a day when I hadn’t even managed to multiply once in the three years that we’ve lived here! I think that’s what they call irony… As a woman living with infertility, my blood signals the monthly loss of a dream, for a bed bug, my blood is its signal to start multiplying. Evil creatures! But I digress…
The personal impact was enormous. After a serious of sleepless nights and with MS symptoms raging due to stress, we were desperate for somewhere safe to sleep. However, our biggest concern was that these bugs are hitchhikers, and so the likelihood of inadvertently taking them with us was pretty high. We couldn’t bear the thought of someone else having to go through what we were going through. However much it stressed us; we wanted to keep the problem to ourselves.
Islands and Life Challenges
The idea of keeping our problems to ourselves is one which isn’t just limited to bedbug infestations. No matter what life challenge we face, our problems do not only affect ourselves. Unlike bedbugs, most problems are not contagious and yet the impact that a seemingly personal problem can have on others, cannot be underestimated. Lives touch and connect, but intimacy can only happen if we’re prepared to share the pain as well as the joy.
Intimacy can only happen if we're prepared to share the pain as well as the joy. Click To Tweet
The greater the relationship, the deeper the impact of suffering. That’s been one of the issues in Europe, particularly with the shared currency. Greece has suffered an economic crisis, and the rest of us have felt the effects. We’ve also shared in seeking a solution, albeit in many cases unwillingly! Even Britain, an island with its own currency has not been immune to the crisis in the Eurozone. The world is far more connected than ever before, and that doesn’t leave much room for truly independent islands.
The world is more connected, and that doesn't leave room for truly independent islands. Click To Tweet
When Loved Ones Hurt
Whatever challenges we face in life, it’s never just about us. In the midst of a personal crisis moment, often the greatest challenge can be dealing with our loved ones’ response to our pain. They’re hurting too.
One of the first things that I said to the doctor after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis was, “How on earth am I going to tell my parents that?! My Mum’s just started chemotherapy!” I refused his kind offer to tell them for me. I knew I needed to do it myself. It’s the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make. As soon as I told my Dad, he cried, and I had no words of comfort. I was still trying to take it in myself. He recently told me that the image that came to his mind was of Jacqueline Du Pre, the Cellist, who died of a rare, aggressive form of MS in 1987, at the age of 42. So for him, at that moment, he was looking at his daughter’s death sentence.
Ten months later, as I waited for an update on my Mum’s cancer tests, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. I knew what time her appointment had been at, and she still hadn’t phoned. When it’s good news, we’re quick and anxious to share it with our loved ones. When it’s bad news, we’re often not. I knew that because I’d been there. We cannot protect our loved ones from our pain, and that’s one of the most painful things of all. On that occasion, it was my turn to cry into the phone as I received the news that my Mum’s cancer was terminal. She died about six weeks later.
We cannot protect loved ones from our pain, and that's one of the most painful things of all. Click To Tweet
How to achieve Growth
If I were asked to share some of the most romantic moments of our marriage, I could talk of a honeymoon in Italy, of a gondola ride, of walks in the Swiss Alps and intimate dinners. Those were moments of joy, and they’re precious. But if you ask me to share the moments that have strengthened our marriage the most, those moments that would first come to mind if I were asked for reasons why I would never leave my husband, then it’s not holidays that come to mind. I think of my husband helping me clean my wound after surgery to remove a fibroid. I think of how his eyes met mine and reflected my pain as I cried out as MS cramps combined with spasticity. I think of how he’s held me as I’ve cried, yet again, at my lack of pregnancy. I remember the love I felt for him as he lay in intensive care fighting pancreatitis. Four years before, as I prepared for marriage and the vow of “in sickness and in health” I worried that I wouldn’t have what it takes if I ever had to support him through a major illness. Yet as I watched him in intensive care, with tubes and monitors, I knew at that moment that I would do whatever it took to support him.
Marital faithfulness in times of life crisis is not a given. In an ideal world, it should be, but sadly the statistics tell us otherwise. The divorce rate is higher when one of the spouses is facing severe illness. Those vows of “in sickness and in health” are one thing when a spouse suffers an occasional cold or flu but a far greater challenge when the illness is chronic or life-threatening. Pain and suffering can cause havoc in a marriage but if the couple chooses to keep facing the problem together, then it’s also an amazing, albeit unchosen, opportunity for growth.
When I think of what a good husband my grandfather was to my grandmother, it’s the last years that come to mind. I remember how he cared for her through Alzheimer’s. I think of how my Dad cared for my Mum as she went through chemotherapy and later as we all stood round her bed while she was dying. I think of my Mum’s best friend who was there with us at the end. Those are examples of love, in the good times and the bad, faithful and present until the end. I believe that when we make that choice we are better people because of it.
Anyone can be present in the good times, but it’s in life’s challenges that we have the opportunity to show what we’re made of. It’s in those tough times that we can make the choice to grow stronger. We can grow stronger as we face our own pain. We can also grow stronger as we support others in their pain. What we cannot do is cut ourselves off from the world and keep growing. That would be to stagnate. The one who walks out on marriage or friendship, for the sole reason that the other party is facing challenging life circumstances, ends up losing. Suffering is painful. Always. But there’s that wonderful word redemption. We’re not going to grasp a hold of that, though, unless we’re prepared to keep walking together through whatever life throws at us.
Islands and Refugees
As I write, I’m so aware of the refugee crisis. I think of my country, Britain, a beautiful island. I understand the fear and the desire to keep out that which may hurt, which could have the potential to be dangerous. As I’ve reflected during my week of having to flee my home and seek refuge elsewhere, what is the alternative? We’ve seen the images. There are people who have nowhere to go. They cannot get through this alone. They need support. If we don’t at least acknowledge that then, no border control will save us from ourselves. We could protect our island and yet risk losing our humanity in the process.
We could protect our island and yet risk losing our humanity in the process. Click To Tweet
However much we may wish to use platitudes to convince ourselves that suffering is not our business, the fact is that if we’re to save our hearts, it has to be. When there are people who cannot return to their homes because they’re uninhabitable, and terrorists are out for their blood, then compassion says we must rise up and respond, or we harden our hearts and become responsible for adding to their suffering by our very denial to alleviate it. Because we are not islands, we cannot wipe our hands and deny responsibility. The media will not allow us to plead ignorance. However we respond, we respond. Not responding is a response in itself.
If we seek to keep our island intact and our growth to a minimum then perhaps it is our personal growth that is held back. To protect our island but lose our heart is to lose out on the opportunity for vibrant growth. To close our borders and our compassion with them is to close our lives to the growth that comes through walking alongside others. It is to close our hearts in a way that can only diminish us. I do not pretend to have all of the solutions to the problem, although I have considered some of them, but I have come to see that the so called “easy solution” of seeking to protect ourselves at the expense of others has the potential to be more self-destructive than we may have previously considered.
seeking to protect ourselves at the expense of others has the potential to be self destructive. Click To Tweet
It’s Not Good to be Alone
No man, or woman, is an island. To maintain our humanity, we have to engage with suffering, even at times when it’s not our own. To avoid that is to avoid relationship.
“It’s not good for man to be alone,” said God, and contrary to some interpretations given, I don’t think that He meant for those words to be used to attack singleness. We have to take the words in context, according to the Genesis account, Adam was the only person in the world at that time. He had no friends, no fellow men, no family, and no wife. “It’s not good for man to be alone.” It’s not good to be alone in our own suffering, and it’s not good to put up the barricades as a self-defence against being touched by anyone else’s suffering. We weren’t made to be islands.
We weren't made to be islands. Click To Tweet
The Hands and Feet of Jesus
Last week, I was helping at a pilgrim hostel on the Camino de Santiago. I’m blessed to have many interesting conversations with pilgrims while I’m there. One morning, I was chatting to a pilgrim who identified herself as into the new Age, Buddhism and various other philosophies. However, she told me that she’s found herself reflecting on Jesus during the Camino. She was reflecting on what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those around us. She was touched by the fact that Jesus’ hands and feet had nails put through them. He was crucified. He suffered. As I spoke with her, she wondered out loud whether it was possible to serve others as Jesus did without risking experiencing pain ourselves. It was an interesting conversation. For those of us seeking to be followers of Jesus, do we think we can do that without being touched by the suffering of those that we’re serving in a Christlike way? We grow in our Christian journey and our Christlikeness when we are willing to speak to those that others would reject, to touch the leper and to truly walk with those that suffer.
Let’s go for Growth!
I’m not grateful for bedbugs, but I’m grateful to those who opened up their home to us and put our needs above any concern about the impact on their lives. Their hospitality prevailed. I’m not grateful for any of my challenging life circumstances, but I’m grateful for all that I’ve learnt along the way. I’m grateful for all those who’ve walked with me, for the depth of growth in my marriage, family and friendships. I’m grateful that, by the grace of God, I get to use my experiences to walk with others on their journey. It’s hard to see others suffer. It’s hard to allow others to see us suffer. It’s hard to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a world so full of suffering. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it because the potential for growth is so much more than the alternative if we choose avoidance. We engage with each other, or we are diminished. Let’s go for growth!