No Man is an Island

Reading time: 7 minutes

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
– John Donne

I want to open up about a topic that means a lot to me. For over a year now, I’ve been reflecting on the phrase “no man is an island”. This famous line comes from a poem by the English poet John Donne, where he compares people to countries and argues for the interconnectedness of all individuals. When I consider society as a whole, this phrase always comes to mind. I believe that nobody can be entirely self-sufficient, and we all need the support and companionship of others to thrive.

This phrase played a significant role when I wrote a letter to the mayor of my hometown, to advocate for my maternal grandfather to be awarded a Royal Dutch honor. On April 26th, 2023, he received this honor, and the mayor announced: “Het heeft Zijne Majesteit de Koning behaagd u te benoemen tot…” (“It has pleased His Majesty the King to appoint you…”). My grandfather was honored for his long-standing volunteer service and contributions to theatre and culture in our hometown, as well as his volunteer work that has helped senior citizens improve their digital literacy and well-being.

I was privileged to give a speech that day, where I highlighted my grandfather’s accomplishments and took part in the celebrations held in his honor. Although I am no stranger to public speaking, having delivered quite a few speeches, including eulogies at family funerals and officiating at a wedding, being part of this recognition process was an incredibly humbling and honorable experience.

Mortality and legacy

Last year, my mother called me to share some family updates, as she usually does. However, she had some heartbreaking news to share about one of our grandparents’ close friends being diagnosed with a terminal illness. This news hit my grandfather hard, causing him to reflect on his mortality and legacy. As a result, he documented everything he had accomplished in the past, resulting in an extensive CV-like document. He printed this document, and while delivering some groceries to my mother, he quickly pressed this double-sided print in her hands. “Here”, he said, “so you know about everything I did.”. My mother, well, she was left a bit flabbergasted.

It’s important to note that my mother has a different perspective from her father, particularly towards his volunteer board work. She often regarded his work as somewhat ostentatious. When I did volunteer board work in the past (I used to be board member and chairman of an LGBT networking association a few years ago) she more often than not drew parallels with my grandfather, and often wrote it off as nothing more than “boasting” and “playing boss”. While she does a lot of volunteer work in animal care herself, she was somehow very opinionated about board work and the application of leadership skills in a volunteer setting.

I asked my mother to give me the document for safekeeping.

During a visit to my grandparents, I brought up the document and asked about its purpose. I was confident that my grandfather wished to use it as a part of his eulogy, in case he passed away. Although he (as everyone in my family) was somewhat hesitant to discuss death, he confirmed my assumption. My mother however, jumped in passionately, claiming that (volunteer) work is not all that makes a person, but that “family and friends are more important” – and he had written about none of that in his document. This really more showed about father and daughter’s perspectives on life – and how they did not align. Being somewhat conflict-evasive, my grandmother promptly offered us another cup of coffee and I, reading the room, shifted the conversation to a lighter topic.

To honor another

After receiving my grandfather’s document, I was unsure of what to do with it. I placed it in a special section of our bookcase where we kept our family documents and photo albums. However, the situation kept gnawing at me. I dislike leaving things unresolved and it was hard for me to face the inevitability of losing a grandparent. Death had become a frequent presence in our family’s life, especially my grandparents lives, with the loss of one of their daughters, their son-in-law and many family friends. My grandmother often remarked that their “circle is getting smaller every year”. I could empathize with my grandfather’s perspective as he composed his document. What had he accomplished in life? What was his legacy?

I often think about these same questions, even though I’m in my 30s, being primarily focused on my job, my relationship, building a social circle, and my immediate family. But I’ve been searching for other ways to find meaning in my life. My husband and I estimate that we will have little to no probability of having children, I frequently wonder about what I’ll leave behind and what impact I can have on the lives of others.

Upon reviewing my grandfather’s list of achievements, I was impressed with the decades-long volunteer work he had done. He had directed and served on the board of the local theater and opera society, volunteered to direct a cabaret group at the local hospital, and engaged in client councils of a regional healthcare provider after retirement. In recent years, he had volunteered with his digital expertise in the local library, helping elderly citizens become computer-literate.

Ah, that brought back memories. I fondly remember assisting my grandfather in becoming computer-literate in the early 2000s, when I was a teenager. Seeing him pass on his knowledge to his peers made me very proud to be his grandson.

Honoring my grandfather with a eulogy would be an honor, as I had done for my paternal grandfather earlier in 2005. Praising him would provide comfort to those in mourning. The deceased however, would no longer be present to hear it. I prefer to honor the living, but I wasn’t sure how.

Suddenly, I had an idea: why not nominate my grandfather for a Royal Dutch honor? Such honors are bestowed upon individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to society. My grandfather’s extensive volunteer work undoubtedly qualified. I submitted a request to the municipality where my grandparents lived…

Only to discover that someone else was already nominating him. That was a very welcome surprise! The civil servant responsible for nominations swiftly connected me with the other nominator, a volunteer who worked closely with my grandfather on client councils. We collaborated on compiling the necessary documents and support letters for the nomination, which was a considerable undertaking. I was pleased to compose a letter of support myself, which may be the most beautiful (and frankly, most revised) letter I have ever written in my life.

The Dutch ‘lintjesregen’ is a highly esteemed tradition that takes place on the occasion of the Dutch King’s birthday, during which people are awarded royal honors for their exceptional contributions to society. This event reflects our country’s culture of valuing community service and promoting social cohesion. The honors are awarded in the form of a medal or a ribbon known as ‘lintjes’ in Dutch. During the ‘lintjesregen’, thousands of people across the country receive these royal honors in recognition of their outstanding voluntary work, community service or achievements. The honors are conferred by the mayors of their respective municipalities, who are authorized by the King to award these distinctions.

On the day of the ‘lintjesregen,’ I was happy to see my grandparents content. Even my mother could not contain her pride, and it was a great day to cherish.

I am no island

As I crafted my speech, the phrase “no man is an island” kept resonating in my heart. Volunteers are the backbone of our society. Volunteer work is a critical component of any community, as it fills in the gaps where formal organizations or government resources fall short. It provides individuals with an opportunity to contribute their time, skills, and expertise towards a common goal that benefits society. Whether you volunteer for board work, help out at a local animal shelter or do anything in between, every effort counts.

Volunteering fosters civic involvement, empathy, and a feeling of social responsibility in people. It may have a profoundly good psychological and professional influence for volunteers. Volunteering allows you to acquire new skills, make new friends, and obtain job experience. It may provide a feeling of purpose by providing an enjoyable method to give back to society. It empowers people to apply their talents, expertise, and passions to make a difference in the world. It may also be used to interact with others and form social relationships, which is especially helpful for people who feel isolated or disconnected.

To be honest, I have been feeling a bit disconnected and lacking in purpose lately, being mostly preoccupied with work and the day-to-day routine. Now that I am in a good mental space and have more free time, I am seriously considering doing some volunteer or charity work myself.

I believe that I can make a positive impact on others, whether through physical work or by applying my leadership skills. As a society, we are all interconnected. Nobody can be entirely self-sufficient, and we all need the support and companionship of others to thrive, especially during these difficult times where many people are facing uncertainty. This world needs a little love and care, and maybe, just maybe, I can make it a little better.

No man is an island, and I am no exception.

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