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“No man is an island…”
For much of my life it has been my favorite line of poetry; and it is a lovely fiction.
The truth; the central, default truth, is life, itself. We are born alone; we die alone; most profoundly, we are conceived alone, a unitary union of two halves of a whole ; no room for any other halves.
Yet from that first creative instant we are dependent upon others for sheer survival.
That is our heritage from the three-billion-odd years which lie behind us. This is the biological truth beneath the poet’s lovely line.
That line is the product of John Donne’s imagination, and it is our imaginations which make us human. Therein lies the paradox.
Each of us is cognitively unique. We survive, save for a few physical imperatives for which we are equipped by instinct (fear of falling; reflexively holding our breath when the airway is submerged in liquid), mostly by learning what other people know.
But each of us must learn it with our own wetware; which means that what we “know” is different from what anyone else knows. This is so, because in order to know it, we have had to integrate it into everything else that we have learned (and inherited). It has become part of our person, and that person is unique.
In our cognitive personhood, we are each, indeed, islands.
But in our physical, mammalian existence – the process we define as life – we cannot persist without each other. This does not necessarily mean that we always need to associate with other people. History is full of individuals who didn’t seem to seek the society of their fellow-humans at all. The only “company” they needed was their own imagination, and they could find sufficient protection from the “elements” within the environment – the traditional “hermit in the cave.”
But the most profoundly antisocial hermit still has to eat, and just about all of what we have to eat (and wear to keep from dying of exposure) is a biological relative.
So we are physically sustained by being undeniably, unavoidably a part of the fabric of life on Planet Earth. Yet we are such separate intelligences that we can cognitively relate to one another only in approximations.
Fortunately we live in a universe of approximations; so that what we know about a specific subject can be similar enough to what others know about it that we can act upon it in concert.
We can shoot machines we have cooperatively constructed into space and land them upon satellites and planets millions of miles away, occasionally carrying us with them. And against astronomical odds, even bringing us back, alive.
We can drill holes miles deep in water in the ocean floor to retrieve the energy we need to keep our machines running.
But because we are dealing in approximations and imperfect relationships we don’t always make it back alive, and all too often we create messes we don’t know how to clean up. If some day we chance to create a mess that the environment, itself, is too frail to clean up for us we will no longer live here. (Some of our relatives might survive, as long as the planet holds together, and restart the process again, but it could not, conceivably, result in us.)
Conventional wisdom (which is often a good deal more conventional than wise) holds that we are such individual creatures that the most effective “humane” (non-lethal, non-physically injurious) punishment for crime is imprisonment. They shut you up and restrict your movement so you can no longer go about and do as you wish.
But, paradoxically, we are such social creatures that the most punitive form of imprisonment is solitary confinement.
Now, admittedly, since I have never been confronted with any such confinement (save a two year stint as a draftee into the United States Army, which with my personally creative mind-set and no active combat situations was only mildly confining) I may have no real idea of how I would deal with such a situation.
But I suspect that, given the choice of associating with most of the people I might meet behind bars, including the professionals assigned to guard me, I, personally, would prefer to be by myself.
They would have to feed me, after all, and in a “modern” lockup, at least in most of the United States, the food probably wouldn’t be any worse than the rest of the prison population had to endure.
Not having anybody to talk to wouldn’t bother me, which might surprise many people who (think they) know me, because I tend to talk a lot (witness the way I write a lot), but I do not think that most of the people I might meet in prison would have much to say that I would want to listen to, or share.
Conversely, I do not imagine many of my fellow prisoners would feel deprived by the lack of my company.