In his book No Man Is an Island (originally published in 1955), Thomas Merton writes “Although in the end we alone are capable of experiencing who we are,… [w]e learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them – a process which has disadvantages as well as blessings.”
This brief observation contains multiple important implications for how we should strive to live our lives. Stretching fairly far back into human history, the idea of personal autonomy is a subject that has gained a lot of traction. Let us look at two “hot button” issues as illustrations of the subject at hand.
Most recently this has come up with whether one wears a mask or gets vaccinated as part of the spread of covid mitigation efforts. Some believe that all should wear masks and get vaccinated as part of being a responsible member of society. Others, for a variety of reasons, believe that they have the right to not wear masks and to not get vaccinated. In a bit of an ironic twist, many of those holding this position will use the chant of the pro-abortion crowd and reply to critics with, “My body – My choice.” Returning to Merton, we live with and we live like others. It is important for all members of society to remember that there is a cascading effect of engaging in behavior that can place others at risk – others may be infected with the virus as an outcome of another person’s not taking covid mitigation precautions. Likewise, those who trend towards an “all must be vaccinated” position are frequently ready to disregard the individual experience of who any single person is. As a result, consideration for questions such as complicating health conditions, legitimate and yet unanswered concerns, and the deeply held religious and/or moral beliefs about the vaccines, at play within a person’s life are ignored. No matter which side of the debate one is on – there are other people affected by a person’s decision.
Similarly, the question of those who support abortion, with its “My body – My choice” mantra, ignores the reality that the yet to be born infant is not the body of the mother. It is simple science. The DNA of the mother and the DNA of the infant are different. Both are human, they are different, hence different human beings. To engage in an abortion is to end the life of a human being that is not the body of the mother. Furthermore, to restrict the “choice” of whether to obtain an abortion to the mother is to ignore that there is also a father who has been completely disenfranchised by the maternal primacy. This is not engaging with the truth and fundamental reality that we live together – no man, and no woman, is an island. Likewise, however, there are many who would force motherhood on the unprepared without simultaneously providing that which is needed to be successful. Those who are pro-life cannot, with integrity, claim to be pro-life without establishing societal structures that will ensure the well-being of children brought into the world. The unwed, the unready, the impoverished, must have recourse to support mechanisms that will affirm life and facilitate the raising of children. Currently the United States is far from that standard. We do not seem to have legislators that are as concerned with fostering life as much as they are concerned to prevent the ending of life. Like the issue above, no matter which side of the debate one is on – there are other people affected by a person’s decision.
Ultimately these matters are, at one point or another, linked to consent. Whether one has (or needs) consent is often considered the final determiner of whether something is right or acceptable to do.
For a person not yet 17 years of age, parental consent is required to watch an R rated movie. Upon reaching the age of 17, the person no longer needs parental consent. A person who is 17 but not yet 18 who desire to join the United States military must have parental consent. After 18 the person no longer needs consent. Whether a decision is right or wrong is not the question for most people, especially when something might be considered a moral question, instead it is whether or not there is appropriate consent. In questions of sexual morals, the question is almost always spun to whether or not there is consent. We do not like to interfere in the behavior between “two consenting adults.” Or, among some, between “consenting adults” without regard to the number involved. Nagging questions as to who can give legitimately give consent are brushed aside. The reality that the “age of consent” varies from state to state and from country to country indicates at least some question as to the validity of relying on consent alone to determine if an action is acceptable.
Then there is the final point I will bring forward today, consent between adults still results in a cascading effect on those around them. Remember, no man, and no woman, is an island. As illustration, let us look at two significant case studies.
The first comes from the dawn of all humanity. Adam and Eve, two rational adults, are in the Garden of Eden. Along comes Satan in the appearance of a serpent. Satan tempts Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve and Adam consent to Satan’s temptation and they grasp the fruit and eat it. The result is the cascading effect of rebellion against God in the form of sin and sin’s resultant death are cast upon all of humanity.
The second case study is that of Mary and Christ. Mary is in her family home in Nazareth while the Son of God, the Christ, is still present in the Kingdom of Heaven. Both are confronted with the plan of God the Father to redeem humanity and restore the possibility of eternal life in His Kingdom. Both consent to God the Father, the Christ to be named Jesus miraculously becomes incarnate within the Blessed Virgin Mary. The two together live lives that reflect the consent to God’s will, a new Adam and a New Eve, providing the opportunity for all of humanity to be made at one with God the Father. Their consent offers all of us the opportunity for atonement.
No man, and no woman, is an island. Everything we do has an impact on those around us. Mutual consent is not enough of a test. We must only consent to what is right. Let us all “learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them.” We will each experience some occasional disadvantages, but the blessings will be more than worth it.
the Rev’d Dr Steven G Rindahl
Founder and Director
Warriors on the Way
 Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (New York, NY: Fall River Press, 2003), xii.