No Man is an Island | February 7, 2014

No Man is an Island

In my first four months as headmaster, New Jersey was hit by an earthquake, a hurricane, and an October snowstorm. These phenomena powerfully affected thousands of people, and in my little private world the weather was a pain in the neck.

The earthquake hit during my first ever Senior Team meeting. The meeting was at my house, and I remember standing in the kitchen. I felt the ground shaking, and I grabbed onto the counter wondering if I had vertigo. Soon though, Mr. Adams came bursting through the front door, and said, "Did you feel that?" He had been sitting at a stoplight, and he could feel the earthquake from his car. I realized then that earthquakes happen even in New Jersey.

Four days later, Hurricane Irene came sweeping through, cutting short my first-ever meeting with the entire faculty. Because we had no electricity and no capacity for feeding the faculty and staff, we abbreviated the meeting and gathered in the lobby of Founders. Needless to say, my challenges were small compared to what some people had to manage. Nonetheless I struggled to be patient and flexible and to adjust the visions I had of my opening weeks as head of school.

Eight weeks later, we were hit by the Halloween snowstorm of 2011, and I had the experience of being, what felt like, the only head of school in the state of New Jersey not to call off school the following Monday. While hundreds of thousands were without power, Morristown-Beard School did have power and the campus was clear, so it seemed to me like a good thing to have school that day.

As I greeted students Monday morning, as is my ritual, a sixth-grader said to me, "Mr. Caldwell, we have been thinking (always dangerous words for a headmaster to hear), and we have decided that because you are from Vermont, for you, this is not really a bad snow storm." One senior said to me, "Mr. Caldwell, what were you thinking?" I asked him if he had had a hard time getting to school. "No!" he said, "but..." "Enough said," I smiled.

We often think of the elements, and by this I mean the weather, as a pain-in-the-neck because the weather does not always cooperate. It can be so inconvenient when we have to drive in the rain or walk in the snow or come inside because it's too cold or too hot.

It is interesting to note that over the last two hundred years we have tried to control our environment through heat, air conditioning, and indoor malls, even though we are less dependent on the weather for our livelihood than we were as an agrarian society. Today, we are constantly trying to protect ourselves from the weather. We have indoor fields, indoor coliseums, and in Dubai there is even an indoor ski mountain—with five slopes! We can get tan in a tanning salon; listen to the sounds of nature or the ocean on our iPod as we fall asleep. We paste mud on our face, seaweed on our skin and we ingest ginkgo biloba, all in the name of health and beauty. Yet all of these products we buy are prepackaged--we do not even need to step out the door for these natural amenities. We can hear, see, smell, taste nature without ever getting outside.

Few of us have ever witnessed weather as we have seen in the last three years, and I guess we have two choices. We can resist it or we can try to embrace the natural world, understand it and all its rhythms and needs. We cannot control the weather, but we can control our response to it. More importantly, and on a grander scale, we can control our ability to protect the earth as best we can.

But beyond the challenges and difficulties with the weather, I have also noticed that the hardship of weather can bring people together.

During Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy, and these past snowstorms, my wife and I encountered more friendship and camaraderie than usual. We found kindness and goodwill. We witnessed many people trying to help each other.

Admittedly, when we lost power, at night we huddled around candles in our cold living room, wearing our winter coats and long underwear and feeling sorry for ourselves. But daytime was different.

In our neighborhood you rarely see people outside their homes. Usually they move from their cars straight to their houses. But with Sandy, when we were without power for so long, the neighborhood became even more interactive and alive. We began seeing extended families walking together. In the streets through our neighborhood people began to gather and swap information and engage in neighborly chitchats. Jacque, from the house on our right, told us about a gas station we might try to avoid gas lines. Kim, from the other side of the block, told us how to get on the instant text from Florham Park Alert. John across the street gave us advice on tree removal. Stanley, from the house on the left, offered to run a line from his generator to our house. We declined. That he offered was remarkable to us given the extenuating hardships he had in his own home.

Somehow, out of natural crises, camaraderie is born.

More recently, with these snowstorms, we have experienced a similar increase in contact with our neighbors, who offer help with their snow blowers—we prefer shoveling (I refuse to buy a snow blower)—or who offer to pick something up at the market.

When the weather strikes, you have two choices: you can retreat under the protection of your roof or you can venture out and embrace what mother nature has to offer and make connections with your neighbors.

Shoveling the snow last Wednesday was no easy task. It was drenched with rain, it was crusty and wet, and you could only shovel in small chunks because it was so heavy. But as I was shoveling and chatting with my neighbors, and as I watched them struggling to open pathways to connect with the outer world, I kept thinking about this poem I had once read.

It is a poem by John Donne, who was born in 1572, 442 years ago, and it is perhaps in the top ten most quoted poems. It inspired Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls and Jon Krakauer probably had it in mind when he wrote Into the Wild. It is a poem about the interconnectedness of mankind.

'No Man is an Island'

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 any manner of thy friends 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 the poem, entitled "Meditation XVII," John Donne suggests that all of humanity is connected. He is saying that no one is isolated from the rest of humanity. No one is separate from the "continent" of mankind; therefore, if one person dies, all of humanity is affected, even made less. He uses the comparison with an island because an island is separate from the main continents. He says that "no man is an island" to convey the idea that none of us is alone in the world. We are not islands; we are part of the continent, and in this way we are connected. He further develops this metaphor by describing a "clod" that breaks off from a continent. Even when one little "clod" washes away, the continent is smaller. Similarly, any death of any person makes the whole of humanity smaller. When someone dies, we lose something of ourselves because we are all connected. So, when the bell tolls (which is the signal for a funeral or death), don't ask who the bell is for—it is for you, because you are part of the great continent of man, which is now smaller since one of its members (or clods) has been taken away.

So don't let the inclement weather keep you inside, within your own little island. Get out and embrace what nature has to throw your way and you might, in fact, become "involved in all of mankind," and what a gift that would be.


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