No Man is an Island
September 21, 2023
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island
(I Am a Rock by Simon and Garfunkel)
Have you ever felt like an island? Do you have days when you talk to people all day but, when the day ends, no one knows anything more significant about you than they did when it began? Have you become skilled at deflecting questions and keeping conversations light so you don’t have to let people into your inner life?
Have you ever asked yourself why?
We give lots of reasons:
I am a very private person.
I am an enneagram 5.
I am introverted.
I am out of energy at the end of a workday.
And those reasons are not necessarily incorrect. God made people with widely differing personalities, which create the beautiful tapestry of human society. Some of us truly are introverts or observers, and those people contribute to conversation in their own unique ways. However, no one can live a thriving life without true connection to others. Being out of resources at the end of a workday, being an introvert or being private may all be true, but none is a valid reason for living life without connections. We were created for community. We were designed to live this messy life in this broken world together with others. If no one knows us in an authentic way, we are living as islands. And while that may protect us from pain, as Simon and Garfunkel crooned, it closes our souls to connection.
Scripture tells us that through community:
- The body of Christ is whole and composed of all its parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
- Each one of us uses his or her gifts to serve others (1 Peter 4:10).
- The Holy Spirit joins us in a special way (Matthew 18:19-20).
- We meet one another’s needs (Acts 2:44-47; Philippians 2:3-16).
- We bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
- We pray for one another (James 5:16).
- We love at all times and are present in times of adversity (Proverbs 17:17).
- We sharpen one another (Proverbs 27:17).
- We encourage one another (Romans 1:12).
- We spur one another toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25)
- We help each other through adversity (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
So why do we avoid community?
I think it’s because of shame. When people know us authentically, they know both the good and the bad. The vulnerability of being known so deeply is terrifying because we could then be truly rejected. If the armor of our public persona is rejected, that very armor protects us from shame, but if our true selves are rejected, we feel the shame. Shame’s “message is ‘you are the problem’ rather than ‘there is a problem’” (as Dr. Curt Thompson writes in The Soul of Shame)—and if we believe we are the problem, we must shield ourselves from being truly known. However, without true and authentic relationship, we never completely connect—and without connection, we are never full participants in the body of Christ, sharing our gifts, experiencing the communal presence of the Holy Spirit and sharing in the needs, burdens and joys of others.
As healthcare professionals, it is easy and tempting to put up that armor. It protects us from destruction by the intense pain we often guide our patients through, from being asked for medical advice from everyone we pass in the church hallway and from having to summon more energy for family and friends after a busy week at work. However, it also prevents us from halving the burdens of others while having our own burdens halved, as the old proverb says, and from doubling the joy of others while having our own doubled. Like Margaret Mohrmann writes in Medicine as a Ministry, we “close ourselves off from the filling gifts that come from the suffering of those in our care.”
I am currently at CMDA’s Women Physicians and Dentists in Christ (WPDC) Annual Conference, where several hundred Christian women in medicine and dentistry gather each year to worship, learn and live in community. This is a place where we feel safe to remove our armor. We can be not a doctor in a white coat, but a woman in a painful marriage or a woman with a health crisis, a woman with a wayward child or even a woman with a crisis of faith. This is one of a few places in my life where I find true community and am able to be truly vulnerable.
Where are those places for you? Where do you find authentic community? For many, it is, sadly, not at church. In fact, for many, the church is the place of greatest hiding for fear of the shame of our sins being fully known. This is certainly not God’s design for the church, but it is often our experience in this broken world. If your safe community is not your local church, where is it? A small group? A larger organization like WPDC? An online group for parents of wayward adult children? Wherever it is, you must find it. For without community, your armor will slowly become an emotional shroud. The less we practice vulnerability in community, the more difficult it is to learn, and the more traumatic the event required to break through the armor. I challenge us all to intentionally seek this place for ourselves, for it is in a community of Christ-followers that we grow deeper in our relationship with God. And it is, in fact, God Himself who knows us fully and loves us truly. As Tim Keller said, “To be loved and not known (as we are when our armor is in place) is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved (as we fear will happen if we remove our armor and are then rejected) is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is a lot like being loved by God.”
If you are living as an island, begin the process of building some bridges to community. Your first attempt, or indeed your fourth or fifth, may not find the right community for you. But that community is a lifeline that you must continue to seek for your own well-being and health.
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, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were.
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.
(MEDITATION XVII; Devotions upon Emergent Occasions; John Donne)