Just before Christmas my buddy Padre Howard, a handsome but clueless individual, called me to say that he needed some writing from me for the first thing in January. Howard coordinate chaplains’ submissions to The Western Sentinel, the newspaper of Canada’s Army in western Canada. Burdened by vague feelings of affection and loyalty to Howard (he has a nice moustache, a lovely family, drinks Guinness… and that’s all i’ve got, really), I agreed. While casting about for a topic, I thought it would be quite awesome if I could quote a Renaissance metaphysical poet in an army newspaper and get away with it, and I did. Mr. Argyll, my Literature 12 teacher who introduced me to John Donne, would be proud.
In all seriousness, the submission was written while I was finishing off a series of charitable events with many good hearted folks from the base, and feeling quite inspired by them, and my feelings of despair and horror in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, USA, in December. The intersection of those feelings lead me to Donne. You can see the piece here and then navigage to page 17. Or, to make it easier, you can read it below.
“No man is an island” wrote the English poet John Donne. If Donne was alive today instead of 400 or so years ago and been more gender aware, he would have probably written “no one is an island”, but the point is the same. Donne was saying that all of us are connected, one to another, or, in his words, “I am involved in mankind”. When we ignore this fact, our lives become isolated and stranded, like a barren island cut off from the mainland.
As I write this, just before Christmas, I am, like all of us, trying to find some meaning in the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I have no answers. I am not sure that anyone does. What could one say? All that we can say, with any certainty, is that one person, for whatever horrible and misguided reason, rejected his connection to his fellow humans. Whereas the poet Donne felt that “any man’s death diminishes me”, Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, turned that sentiment on its head. He, like other mass killers, seems to have gone to a place where the only meaning was in the death of others.
Our American friends and neighbours are now beginning a long and painful debate. This debate will involve individual and constitutional rights to bear arms, the need of society to protect itself, and issues regarding mental health. Some of this debate will be uniquely American, but the issues around society and mental health know no borders.
Over the Christmas season just passed, I have been inspired time and again by how my military and civilian colleagues have gotten “involved in mankind”. I’ve seen volunteers step up to help the Salvation Army, the United Way, the local food bank, soup kitchens, you name it. These people don’t want recognition. They don’t do it for their PERs or a letter from the Padre to their COC saying how swell they are. They just want to do something to help others. They realize that human beings aren’t designed to be islands, and that we do best when we are connected to one another. I’m definitely not a shrink, but I will say with certainty that our mental health depends on each of realizing, as Donne wrote, that we are “involved in mankind”. This is good advice, and not just for the Christmas season.
A while ago at CFB Suffield, we sat with glazed expressions through two days of stupefying annual briefings, but amidst this death by powerpoint I remember some good stuff on mental health. We were told to keep an eye on each other, and to check in with friends and colleagues if we see them starting to detach themselves from others. Here for me is the hope I need when stories like Newtown look so large. The truth, and the key to healthy living, is that we none of us our islands. We do best, we even thrive, when we reach out to others, because we are all “involved in mankind”.