Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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                                                                      NO MAN IS AN ISLAND


“No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clot be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… 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.”

John Donne published these words in 1624 as a devotional meditation.  Now 392 years later, these words ring through our minds and hearts.  These words are important for all of us to meditate upon. John Donne’s life reflects both love and tragedy in his poetry handed down to us over the years. Religion was always an important theme in Donne’s life and writing.  Donne’s themes, the love of family and mankind, the stress, turmoil and tragedies in human life as well as religious suffering can still be found in modern day 2016!


This article is not really about John Donne, but I will say a few words about his life and works. At age 4, Donne’s father died, his mother remarried and two of his sisters died several years thereafter.  The family was a reclusive Roman Catholic family when that religion was illegal in England.  Donne did indulge in some of the usual passions of youth, settling down later. During his early years Donne and his family experienced difficulty in their religious faith. Donne’s brother was arrested for harboring a Catholic priest. This priest was tortured and killed by the authorities while Donne’s brother died in prison. Preparing for a diplomatic career, Donne fell in love and married against the wishes of her family. His wife Ann birthed 12 children in their 16 years of marriage including two stillborn children, dying herself several days after the last baby. Donne mourned her loss deeply, living himself 14 years thereafter, losing another child during that time and suffering health problems.  He was honored to be named Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in the Church of England for his last 10 years of life during which he wrote this poem in a series of meditations and prayers on pain, health and sickness published under the title Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.  Religion became increasingly important in his life and literary career, focusing on sermons and religious poems. Donne began to challenge death with his belief in eternal life in heaven.


Donne was a prolific writer with poetry, elegies, verse letters, songs and sonnets and other writings now published in many scholarly books.  The memories of Donne’s words echo in Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, William Styron’s “Set This House on Fire” and Thomas Merton’s “No Man is An Island.”  His influence can be found in popular culture; for example Van Morrison’s song “Rave On John Donne.” References to Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” and “No Man Is An Island” can be found throughout our culture.


Donne’s words are beautiful and inspiring, surviving throughout the ages and as a part of many spiritual and religious practices. We are taught that all people are connected upon this earth and in the heavenly realms.  But do you actually know this? Do you ever think about this?  Yes, the purpose of this article is for me to impart some information to you about Donne and his work. But , most important, my goal is also to inspire you to think about these issues, take them into your heart, and begin to live as the interconnected beings that you really are. These days especially it seems that people spend a lot of time ostensibly communicating without really communicating. Out to dinner at a beautiful restaurant recently, I observed the people at the next table talking to each other occasionally, but mostly texting separately.  Texting, twittering, facebooking; do these activities really serve the purpose of communication or are they mainly self indulgent activities? People these days often act as if they are isolated “islands” lost in a disjointed world. Donne tells us differently. Think about the fact that the world includes more than people in our country, more than people in the world; it also includes all of nature, animals, creatures of the sea, trees and plants, all developed and programmed to live together in the beautiful symphony of life. In the heavens we can find angels, beautiful spirits, a heavenly home for our loved ones, and a positive destination for us when we shed our bodies and follow our hearts back to our eternal lives. But do YOU see this world harmony happening around you or do you live in a boxlike house, drive around in a metal car, spend your life with gadgets and forget about the greater good?  Apparently going to church is not enough. One morning I turned on the TV to hear a prominent cleric talking to an audience of people clasping Bibles. I was about to change the channel when I heard him negate the idea of “good works.” Good works are prosocial behaviors which help people other than yourself. Disparaging the idea of good works, he cited the importance of church attendance and financial support of church activities.


Spiritual and religious people as well as social scientists appear concerned about the lack of real, heartfelt social understanding and communication.  Others follow the writings of Ayn Rand. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand developed a theme that human nature is fundamentally selfish, that “each man exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.” Admirers of this work include the influential politician, Paul Ryan, who cites the book as one of his main inspirations for entering politics and is known to give copies of this book to interns and admirers.  Interestingly enough, before children are old enough to read Ayn Rand, toddlers show frequent examples of helpful behavior toward others and contagion between feelings.  I wonder and worry if these children’s natural prosocial behaviors will be negatively influenced by the increasing influence of screen time on their lives.


Think deeply about the concept that “No man is an island.” Please take these issues into your heart as you consider them in your mind, and then begin to add helpful prosocial altruistic behaviors into your life. You will find an increase in love and happiness in your own life as you open up to the world around you.  Consider the Loving Kindness meditation. In this meditation you will bring love and happiness to yourself (as the key person in your world), your loved ones, your acquaintances, individuals who are difficult to deal with, and then a final perspective on the interconnected nature of all mankind. Once you begin this practice, you can fit it into your daily activities without spending a great deal of time on this meditation. The benefits will far outweigh the time you’ve spent.  I am not a great meditator, but I was able to incorporate this beautiful meditation into my daily life for a year and a half with wonderful results.  For more information about this meditation, I’ve included articles in the Reading Room section of my website “Loving Kindness Meditation Update” (


An important issue in our society concerns money and finances.  It is clear that most of us need an adequate amount of money and possessions to live in this society. It is also increasingly clear that wealth is being concentrated into a very small percent of people while increasing numbers of us have to work long hours for inadequate support especially for families, young people and children.  Today you see evidence of political revolutions all around us as these issues become increasingly clear and problematic.  Scripture and spiritual contacts provide evidence of the right of all individuals and families to have adequate life support. “Give us this day our daily bread” is promised. “The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want.” Spiritual works and writings assure us that divine intervention intends that all individuals have adequate support for themselves and their families. Increasingly the rich and wealthy are becoming conspicuous consumers as well as misers of their possessions. If you look on the Internet you will find many articles about the fact that the rich are very selfish. According to the author Steve Siebold, “They’re selfish and they are okay with it. Rich people think selfishness is a virtue.”   What happened to altruism and sharing? Psychologists know that hoarders of wealth actually begin to lead lives of negativity and depression, while adequate life support provides joy and happiness to individuals who share their daily bread.


In thinking about this issue, don’t forget Donne’s words: when “the Bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”  We will ALL face a transition from this life into eternal life. Some people may not believe this outcome will apply to them, but eternal laws do apply to all of us. So-called “resting in peace in a grave” does not seem a particularly desirable outcome to me.  This life is but a small part of time, and time is eternal. I don’t raise this issue to increase anxiety and fear. I raise this issue to stress the importance of a life well spent sharing happiness and love throughout the world with all beings.   It is true that “No Man Is An Island!”