cathy-community-fullBy Cathy Hird

Do you remember the poem by John Donne, where he reminds us that humanity is a community, that we need each other? The language will feel exclusive to us because it was first published in 1624:

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.

In Donne's time the local church bell would ring whenever someone died, and those who heard it would wonder who had been lost. Donne challenges his reader to grieve the loss without knowing. Because we are interconnected, any death diminishes the whole community, diminishes us.

We know that when we lose someone close to us, we lose a part of our family, our circle. It is a different perspective to see that each loss in the community affects the whole. I believe that this is true about other suffering as well: the hardship of one member of the community affects us all.

We are aware of our own suffering; we attend to the pain of those close to us. But too often we do not bother with the trouble that does not touch us directly. We do not see the ways in which the poverty, the pain of others affects us all.

There are organizations that provide service for people who are poor, homeless, isolated. In those places, we meet people who struggle to pay for heat, to provide food for their children, people who are isolated, abused. Unless we put ourselves in a position to meet people outside our everyday circle, we may not remember they are part of our community.

But people who struggle with daily life are right in front of us. On the highway, we drive past the hitchhiker because we do not feel safe picking them up. We may forget them as soon as they are out of sight, but they are still standing there, a testimony to the fact that it is hard to be poor in a rural community.

Many of us shop on 2nd Ave in Owen Sound, but few of us realize the condition of many of the apartments above the stores. In summer, we look past the residents as they walk their dogs, take a break on a bench. In winter, we do not remember people live here. During elections, I have taken candidates canvassing up those stairs, along the narrow corridors. I want the potential representative to know the depth of poverty some of our neighbours live with, and I hope to encourage these marginalized people to participate in the political system.

But whether we notice these folks or not, the fact that they struggle so hard to just get by has an affect on our whole community. Even for the person who is doing just fine, the fact that some of their neighbours are in such a marginal state affects them.

In school, the child who comes hungry does not learn as well. But their distraction, their depression has an affect on the whole class. A person with recurring mental illness and no family to help keep them on track goes to the hospital emergency room for help, and it takes longer to deal with everyone else's problems as a result.

Our own pain holds our attention. A family member's suffering demands our assistance. A friend's problem we pay attention to. But a stranger's suffering we can walk past. A stranger's pain and poverty we can look away from. We may tell ourselves that we are respecting their privacy, but mostly we are insulating ourselves from their need.

But as Donne reminds us, we are not isolated islands. We rub up against each other, people we choose to associate with and lots more. When there is homelessness, extreme poverty, abuse, this suffering exists for our neighbour. We are all part of the same community.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.



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