No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
— John Donne
You belong with me, not swallowed in the sea.
—Coldplay, “Swallowed in the Sea<”
The Purpose Driven Life has sold 20 million copies. I sporadically ask individuals I know to recite the first line. While many have read this acclaimed bestseller, those four words usually elude them: "It’s not about you." Like a car buyer aghast with "sticker shock," this statement glares back at us. In fact, this adage seems downright comical—life is tailor made for us, custom built for our detailed specifications. And I am thankful for it, thankful for the ability to choose my film preferences and car color, my wardrobe and diet, my decor and football team. Everyone has a unique and vibrant identity.
Unfortunately, spiritual growth falters when we forge our faith exclusively through this lens, more concerned with our personal journey and less mindful of others who walk this same path. Incidentally, we often frame the Scriptures in this context, searching for personal validation. Ironically, I am discovering the emphasis on the community more and more. For instance, Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector, noticed Jesus teaching among an on-looking crowd, eager to catch a glimpse. Short in stature, he climbed an adjacent tree, fixated on the respected Rabbi. Jesus glanced up and asked him to come down, sharing these words: "I’m coming over. Let’s have lunch." Zacchaeus immediately decided to give away half his possessions and pay back anyone he had cheated four times the original amount. Redemption arrived not for one man, but for many—the lives Zacchaeus would touch through his actions.
The "butterfly effect" postulates that the flapping motion of butterfly’s wings can create changes in the atmosphere that may lead to compounding events, such as a tornado. In other words, a small occurrence can initiate the likelihood of a larger one taking shape. This theory is highlighted in the recent film Babel, directed by Alejandro Inarritu. What’s more, I have become fascinated with films that focus on characters whose lives cross paths directly or indirectly. Crash and Traffic are two additional films that come to mind. Just recently, Muhammad Yunus accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for accelerating the availability of microcredit to the masses, assisting millions increase their economic livelihood—millions who cannot qualify for traditional bank loans. The actions of one man are impacting the lives of many more.
I write about the importance of community often, doing so because I fail to involve myself in it enough. The circle of close friends I have is a significant portion of my life, but I earnestly look for opportunities to enlarge the radius of this figure. In fact, I find myself watching other drivers pass me on a daily basis, curious about the story they live to tell. This story is simply life, the amazing collection of triumphs and failures, relationships and beliefs, beauty and ugliness, ideologies and stereotypes.
It’s a Wonderful Life, (1946) directed by Frank Capra, was recently on television this Christmas Eve. For the record, I believe this is the best film ever made. Oddly enough, the message presented in this film transcends the holiday season. This black and white masterpiece is a stirring account of a man who spends his life uplifting others, relinquishing his dreams and passions for the sake of the community. We know the story. Standing at the edge of death, he catches a glimpse of life without him, pondering the hollow voids in others who cannot recall his existence. George Bailey discovers that he simply wants to be near his wife and children to simply live again, unconcerned with the financial repercussions that are coming. But he finds community waiting at home as friends and family shower him with loose change and dollar bills. And his guardian angel, Clarence, leaves him with words of wisdom that transcend time and space, money and status, prestige and power: "No man is a failure who has friends."
Despite the pull to go solo, I prefer the company of others. I am thankful there are others who can identify with my shortcomings and offer encouragement, others who add vibrant color to my life, invest time and energy in my growth. I intend to do the same, to infuse my story with those who wish to be a part of it. I have much to learn, but I am willing to give what insight and knowledge I have to anyone eager to listen. I will not go alone.
If the tide begins to pull me from the mainland of community, toss me a rope.