In one of my favorite passages from Thomas Merton’s book, No Man is an Island, he writes that “We ought to be alive enough to reality to see beauty all around us”. He says that “Beauty is simply reality itself, perceived in a special way that gives it a resplendent value of its own.” A reality demonstrating the fact that, as John Donne says, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.
To be an island, then, is to be adrift and uncoupled from the commonality of the mainland. It is to be detached from the special ways of seeing the resplendent value and beauty inherent in reality. It is to be ‘apart’ rather to be a “part of.” It is find oneself separate from the unifying will towards life. The underlying the will to life. The will to persist. The will to go on. It is to lose that tremendous sense of resplendence and aliveness. It is to be stuck, stale, and small. Not only alone, but lonely.
Mary Oliver writes that “Even the most solitudinous of us is communal by habit”. Even the artists, authors, thinkers, those of us who relish the the quiet seclusion of our inner worlds, require the replenishment of connection in order to see the many splendored beauty of reality all around us. Yes, solitude is necessary in order for us to make work that is significant. But, so also is “solidarity” essential, Rollo May says, especially if we hope that our work will speak to our own “age”, as well as to that of “future generations”.
When we are isolated too long in the solitary place we “forget how big and expansive the world is” Matt Haig says. We forget our own immeasurable enormity, and we begin “to imagine [that] mediocrity and disappointment [are our] destiny”. We forget that the beauty of reality is that there is a “part of the main” threaded through us all, a piece of the continental vastness of which we each connect and contain.