If there’s one thing that 12 months of a pandemic has taught us, surely it’s that none of us is a rock…or an island for that matter…we all depend on one another, sometimes in ways we’re aware of and at other times in ways we don’t consciously think about.
Of course, we all know we depend on wonderful healthcare professionals to keep us safe in the middle of a pandemic and look after us if things go wrong.
But what about the Amazon delivery driver whose name we don’t know…the grocery supplies which turn up on our doorstep thanks to a supply chain thousands of people strong…the nameless tech people who invented everything we need to work from home more or less as easily as working in the office.
We might think we’re rugged hunks of individualism and self-reliance, but that’s less and less true when we take the time to think about it.
The roads we drive our cars on…the buildings we live and work in…the food we eat…I’m guessing very few of us have built our own roads, invented cars to drive on them, built our own houses and grown all our own food.
In fairness to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, that’s not the point they’re making in the song, but it’s the thought that popped into my mind when “I Am A Rock” came on the radio the other morning.
I’ve loved this song since I was a teenager…a long time ago, I could even play it on the piano for you.
I was a lonely teenager…which was just as well as that has proven to be the perfect preparation for being a lonely adult. I’ve got used to living my life largely on my own and, while I might wish things were different, I’m not unhappy.
But I know I’m connecting with my inner soul when I hear Paul Simon’s guitar, then his voice singing…
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Although recorded a couple of years earlier for a Paul Simon solo album, “I Am A Rock” was included as the final track on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds Of Silence” album. Given its provenance, “I Am A Rock” has Paul Simon on lead vocals instead of Art Garfunkel, although Art does his usual lovely job on the harmonies.
I’m convinced that Paul Simon is one of pop music’s least appreciated lyricists. He does such a skilful job of describing the feelings of someone in a state of perpetual pain, it’s almost like he’s lived through that experience himself…
I’ve built walls
A fortress steep 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 know it’s not how life is supposed to work, but sometimes the only way to get the pain dialled down to a level that’s tolerable enough for you to continue functioning is to keep everyone out of your life.
It might not be better. But it’s safer.
Like the recovering alcoholic who daren’t go into a bar in case they drop straight back into their old self-destructive habits, some of us are only one kind word or a bit of companionship away from letting our guard down again, even though we know how that’s always worked out for us in the past.
So we spend our time doing things that don’t need other people for…like writing about music on here. I don’t need anyone’s permission or anyone’s help to do what I do, and that suits me just fine.
Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the word before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I’d never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island
Except I’m not a rock, if I’m honest, nor an island. I depend on other people every day, whether they know it or not.
Of course, that’s true for the Amazon delivery drivers, grocery deliverers and tech people who allow me to function and live my life on my own.
But it’s also true for the little flashes of humanity that people share sometimes. Those micro-moments where another human being takes the time to look me in the eye and connect and briefly make it feel like life’s worthwhile.
There’s a guy in a café I visit 2–3 times a week who, when he’s on-shift, always greets me warmly and personally. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know mine (he always greets me with “Hello again, Chief, what can I get you?”), but I feel like I’m walking into Cheers every time I pop in there for a coffee and spend a couple of minutes on pleasantries while the coffee brews.
I know there’s nothing special about me. He greets all the regulars, who I have come to know by sight but never talk to, the same way. But the key is that he goes out his way to greet strangers who don’t even know his name and make them feel welcome.
Like plenty of others in my position, I’ve got a basket-full of strategies to stop people getting close. You’re always “fine, thanks!” when people ask how you are at work, before you brush past them to attend to that important thing you’ve got going on in your office.
You learn that humour is a great deflector…even humour that isn’t very good…as a silly joke about something allows you to bring conversations to a natural conclusion without being abrupt and move on before anyone tries to get too close.
And you never hang around anywhere, just in case another person sits down nearby and strikes up a conversation. You’ve always got to be “on your way somewhere” so you can keep moving and, without causing offence, make sure no conversation ever goes beyond the pleasantries.
That’s my life. And I’m lucky because, as Paul Simon put it…
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armour
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no-one and no-one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
But this is just a story I tell myself.
I’m not a rock. I depend on all sorts of people doing their jobs so I can live my life. I have a roof over my head and I never worry about where the next meal is coming from. There are many poor souls in the world far worse off than I am. I have to acknowledge that I’m very privileged to be able to live my life the way I do.
In the modern world, none of us can truly live as “rocks” and be completely independent and self-sufficient, no matter what we tell ourselves. We all depend on other people to create the products and services we use every day, whether we know their names or not.
And every once in a while, a smile from a co-worker or a two-minute chat with a bloke making my coffee reminds me there’s another world out there, where people are able to enjoy the company of other human beings.
Nobody wants to be a rock. In Western culture it’s even vaguely shameful to live your life completely on your own without any friends or family. But some of us decide to live our lives that way because it’s the best choice we are able to make from a list of even less attractive alternatives.
As the end of lockdown heaves into sight, lots of people are getting excited about all the holidays, parties and celebrations they’re going to have with friends and family they’ve spent months apart from. Yet for some of us, the last 12 months of isolation hasn’t been all that different from the way we’ve lived most of our lives.
We’ve felt almost normal, perhaps for the first time ever, in the same boat as everybody else. Soon the world will hardly notice we’re alive again, much less care to any great extent.
Feels like it’s nearly time to flip that switch again and remind myself I can cope with a life of isolation just fine even though the rest of the world has friends and family who want to be part of their lives.
After all, I’ve done this for years. I wear my badge of self-reliance with pride — I am a rock, I am an island.