By Duane Toops
The poet John Donne said, “no man is an island.”
In the Buddha’s final teaching he said to be an island, to “be islands unto yourselves, to “be your own refuge.” But, I think I misunderstood them both. I think there was always a middle way, and I’ve missed it more times than I care to admit.
I’ve gone through so much over the past few years, become so insular, so closed-off, so inward gazing that it’s become easier to keep quiet, to keep to myself, to be my own refuge—to be my only refuge.
I have a complicated relationship to community.
As I’ve moved, and morphed, and grown, and shifted, I’ve seen many of the connections formed in certain communities fall away. Time and again, I’ve been unable to engage in contexts that I found myself philosophically, intellectually and spiritually at odds with. Bonds broke. Relationships severed. And youthful idealism gave way to cynicism and disbelief.
In the process, I discovered how the connections and relationships that build up around a marriage end when the marriage does too. No vow of fealty, whether spoken or unspoken, whether of friendship or matrimony, is immune from falling apart.
John Green says, “We have ways of closing off the conversation so that we don’t ever get…asked what we can’t bear to answer,” and I’ve become a mine field of things I’d rather not say; a universe expanding into the entropy of all the thoughts I’ve left unsaid. I slipped into an oath of inaccessibility and silence. I learned to live as an anchorite, even, and perhaps especially, in open spaces.
J.M. Miro says,”A person grows peculiar in this world” and “It’s not [because of] the loneliness but the solitude.” But, I think it’s both; when one grows into the other. When loneliness turns to solitude. When solitude turns to loneliness. When seclusion turns to isolation. When isolation turns oppressive. When detachment turns desolate, and it’s too debilitating to care. Self-preservation is one thing, exile is another, especially when it’s self-imposed.
The fact that we close-down isn’t really the problem, it’s that we don’t admit when we do.
We either don’t see, or don’t acknowledge that we’ve built a barricade between ourselves and the world. We dig a trench and hide the shovel, even from ourselves. We explain away the dirt on our hands, and let confinement take a hold. Like with most things, awareness is the first step, the most difficult, and the one that makes the most difference. “[C]ompassionate recognition is essential,” Pema Chodron says, and “Unless we understand…that we are hardening our hearts, there is no possibility of dissolving that armor.”
I’ve gotten to be very good at being an island.
Earth adrift on open water. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be connected. Forgotten how to be tethered. Forgotten the touch of land. But, I still believe. I believe in belonging. I believe in belonging the way a prisoner longs for freedom. The way the orphan hopes for welcome, the widow looks for comfort, and stranger searches for shelter.
The way a refugee dreams of coming home; an unattainable yearning to find a way back to being whole.
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