I remember when I first heard the term “islands unto ourselves” it was like a drug slamming into the pleasure receptors in my brain. I was hooked. Yes, I want to be an island unto myself. I want to protect the unique snowflake that is me. I want to be distinct from -but also respected and appreciated by- others. Basically, I want to be completely free to be the best version of who I am, unhindered by anyone else. Don’t we all?
In my desire for complete freedom, I often want to be swept far away to a private place; a place that is protected from the discomfort and inconveniences that being tethered to others inherently brings. I want to be completely free to be me, unencumbered, so I let myself be swept away to an island unto myself. But as Stanley Hauerwas poignantly says, we have “confused freedom with the isolation of the self.”*
I started wondering if I was confusing freedom with isolation. Does our desire to be free from people who inconvenience us also isolate us? If we think of ourselves as individual islands, could the very waters we let divide us and delineate the boundaries of our distinct identities actually isolate us?
Don’t get me wrong, solitude and differentiation are important but, too often, in our desire to be free we let ourselves be swept away by imperceptible undercurrents. One powerful cultural undertow is the idea that, when it comes down to it, we are fundamentally disconnected from everyone else; we are islands unto ourselves. This can be a very dangerous idea.
Even as islands, we occasionally feel the loneliness of isolation. However, too often the discomfort of creeping loneliness leads us to distract ourselves. And, since there are so many things begging for our time and attention, it is easy to let ourselves be distracted. In distracting ourselves every time we feel lonely, we slowly let our imaginations atrophy. Let me explain:
If we feel a momentary twinge of loneliness, we can too easily turn to whatever is right beside us in order to escape the discomfort. Too often, what is right beside us is another experience, idea or thing ready to be consumed. Since we are subjected to many hundreds of (brain)washings in any given day that tell us how to live our lives we can easily lose the ability to imagine anything other than the projected imaginations of consumer culture.
The projected imaginations of consumer culture are what consumer culture co-opts us into imagining for ourselves: of the individual self obtaining permanent happiness, self-fulfillment, identity, security, comfort, mobility, convenience and freedom through the means of consuming experiences, information, goods and services. In fact, these projections are so pervasive and ubiquitous that we often lose the ability to imagine anything else for our lives. The American Dream is extremely uniform and not very imaginative; the fact that most of us Americans live such similar lives speaks to the failure to imagine and actually live in any alternative manner.
As we give into the projected imaginations of consumer culture we lose the ability to imagine for ourselves. Martin Luther King Jr., in a great speech, called Americans to be maladjusted to society. That is, we must not adjust ourselves to a society of discrimination and injustice; we cannot participate or be complicit when we know what is going on around us is wrong or immoral. **
I’ve said before that our brains are always being washed and what starts out as a wash can easily become a wave. If we are not careful, the wave will wash us away. In reality, we may think we wish to be islands unto ourselves but that is a projected imagination of consumer culture. We must reclaim our ability to imagine. We must imagine a different (perhaps maladjusted) life for ourselves, realizing that being swept away in order to become “islands unto ourselves” is not actually good for us and, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not actually what we deeply desire as relational creatures.
Perhaps what we truly desire is to stand on common ground where we can wash ourselves, be washed by those who truly know us and by the One who loves us instead of being washed away by projected imaginations of consumer culture. Perhaps what we deeply want is to give ourselves to a purpose bigger (and more important) than ourselves, and to live a simple life basking in a shared contentedness with those around us. Our prophetic task is to find the courage to imagine something alternative: a kingdom not of this world. We must imagine glimpses of God’s kingdom manifested here on earth in our daily lives. We do this, not by being swept away by cultural washings and waves, but by becoming aware and actively swimming against that cultural force, back to shore where we can find common ground together.
* Stanley Hauerwas, Called to Community, pg xiii