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"islands in a common sea"

"islands in a common sea" essay by Judy Fox

by Judy
February 2, 2015

I woke up early this morning. Scared. It always passes with the morning sunlight, doesn’t happen very often, but at the same time it’s not an unfamiliar experience. I am scared as if I’m a little girl again, afraid of the dark, or afraid of being alone - afraid of death. I’m scared of something I can’t even name. In that state of mind, being “alone” feels scary and then when the morning comes, it’s all seen in a different light.

They say we are born and die alone. Well, I don’t know about the birth part as most of us don’t remember our birth, but for certain we are aware that it is we alone who age, have sickness and die. No matter how many friends and family we have; how intimate we are with another, still we will die alone, but more fundamentally we are alone. That is a fact that we can mourn about, feel bad or even good about, but it’s just true.

We are alone in different ways. For one thing, we can never really step into another person’s shoes. When I say that, it doesn’t deny the beautiful quality of empathy which brings us close to humanity and is such an essential part of being human - an ability to actively imagine and enter into another being’s experience. Acknowledging and living with the truth of aloneness does not in any way mean being separate from others, but it is a profound sense of oneself and a knowing that we have our own destiny to embody and live.

Also no matter how intimate and close we are with another, even if they are what one might call a soulmate, still we will never totally know them – that is just the way it is. There is something in us that wants to be totally understood and understand and at the same time it is rather freeing to realize one will never have that completely. We are separate in that sense; separate and unique beings who also share so much commonality with others.

I was thinking about this in relationship to being with my mom who is now nearing the end of her life. She wants me close to her; to hold her hand and feel my warmth as I do with her, but also I am very aware how alone she is in this process. It simultaneously illuminates my own aloneness as well when I realize that no matter how much comfort I can give her, still my mother is on her own “journey,” her own process. The fact is I can't always alleviate her emotional discomfort.

It brings to mind what it must be like to be a mother – something I never was – but I think that however much a mother or father instills values, teaches, guides and protects, still at a certain point, when the child is no longer a child, there is a point when the parents have to let go. They have to, at times, watch their child make mistakes, make what is perceived as wrong choices and there is nothing they can do about it. I can imagine how that degree of letting go could also plunge one into a sense of aloneness.

This fact of life is a powerful contemplation. It doesn’t mean being separate from others at all, but does point to an independence of spirit.

From another perspective this aloneness can also be understood as our “salvation.” I recently re-read a book called “The Gift from the Sea” by Anne Lindbergh, wife of the famous Charles Lindbergh. In the midst of a busy life with family and responsibilities, Anne goes back to the sea, sand and sky for a few weeks in a way to find herself. It’s a beautiful little book and captures the “refueling” of oneself through solitude, slowing down and getting down to the basics. She says at one point, “No man is an island,' said John Donne. I feel we are all islands -- in a common sea.”

It’s a poignant image - being an island in a common sea. Anne expressed how nourished we are by our aloneness. Coming close to ourselves, which is the source of our strength and spirit, we can give more to another. Out of that aloneness, our humanity deepens, our empathy deepens and paradoxically we are not so alone.

Yes, we are not so alone at all. Coming back to my mom and me, she is on a journey alone, as am I, but at the same time, from out of this aloneness and shared humanity a binding love comes. It’s a love that is intimate and personal. It's also a love, way beyond the "personal" that touches upon something so vast and incomprehensible. A mystery. A common beautiful sea.


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