Gibran – “Life is an island …”

When I was about 18 years old I read the following words by the Lebanese artist, poet, and author Kahlil Gibran in a short collection of his writing entitled The Voice of the Master.

Life is an island in an ocean of loneliness, an island whose rocks are hopes, whose trees are dreams, whose flowers are solitude, and whose brooks are thirst.

Your life is an island separate from all the other islands and regions. No matter how many are the ships that leave your shores for other climes, no matter how many are the fleets that touch your coast, you remain a solitary island, suffering pangs of loneliness and yearning for happiness. You are unknown to others and far removed from their sympathy and understanding.

A few paragraphs later Gibran concludes that solitude is the price we pay for being unique individuals. In his view, we could completely know others, and thus escape our solitude, only if we were identical to them. I’m not sure that conclusion follows but I do think he’s right that we are, at the deepest level, alone.

We can ameliorate this loneliness by sympathizing with and loving others, but we never clearly see the world from their point of view nor they from ours. I’ve had good friends, loving parents and children, but even they don’t know me nor do I know them completely. Even my wife and I, loving companions for over forty years, remain partly mysterious to each other.

We might even say that we are strangers to ourselves too. But then the self isn’t alone so much as illusory. For who is this me that doesn’t know myself? Is that some other me? And is there another me that doesn’t that me? Such questions can be asked ad infinitum.

This is the flip side of saying that I do know myself. But who is this me that knows myself? Is that some other me? And is there another me that knows that me? Again we confront an infinite regress.

In the end, I think we are both opaque and transparent to ourselves and to others. I think that’s because we are, simultaneously, both the same and different as everyone else, although I realize these statements are paradoxical. In the end, we know so little about life. We live, not only alone but largely in the dark. But by remaining optimistic against a background of loneliness and nihilism we are ennobled. We  can shake our fists indignantly at life and laugh at it simultaneously. ______________________________________________________________________

Personal Note – In one of the very first philosophy classes I took as an undergrad the Professor told us that this would be serious philosophy, not feel-good stuff like … Gibran. Wow was I disheartened. I was only 18 and proud that I had read Gibran. Of course, I now know what the professor meant—good analysis is necessary for good philosophy and Gibran’s poetry wasn’t analytical. But sometimes poetic language sears an idea into the mind better than analytical prose. And that’s why I’ve always remembered those words. “Life is an island in an ocean of loneliness.”  A beautiful image of profound insight.

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14 thoughts on “Gibran – “Life is an island …”

  1. This is all very interesting. I agree with all you wrote. A while ago I was listening to an audiobook from The Great Courses about survival or trauma, can’t remember (though thankfully I have never experienced serious trauma). The lecturer started with the premise that ‘no man is an island’. I immediately thought: ‘Please, someone punch me.’. I think this ‘no man is an island’ is such a vulgar commonplace, and, more importantly, a completely false one.

    ‘In the end, each of us stand alone. But more importantly, is WHO is standing alone’. -Schopenhauer

    (still can’t figure out where the heck is cursive on my cruddy keyboard).

    Thank you for your excellent article!

  2. thanks as always for your comments Luigi. But just a quick defense of John Donne’s poem. His “no man is an island” refers to our interconnection with, and dependence upon, others. So I think we can both be all in this together and all alone subjectively.

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each 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 if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

  3. Gibran and Longfellow are fine, but I prefer the Master:

    “At the party the women come and go
    talking of Michelangelo”

  4. Dear Doc,

    Thanks for the response and for the Donne poem.

    ” I think we can both be all in this together and all alone subjectively.”.

    I agree. It would be very sad for anyone to never having had their lives touched by others, directly or indirectly. But I think that at the same time, each of us stands before an abyss, which is common to us all, except deluded people.

    But everyone has a story, which is unique and unrepeatable. There’ll never be another like you, and no one is unimportant. But of course I am not saying anything you didn’t know.

    Thank you!

  5. The problem with the Epictetus quote is that Epictetus believed in God (but not in the afterlife). He thought that it was all part of a grand plan, which is why he believed each person is an ‘intricate’ piece of the ‘puzzle’ of humanity. Someone like Schopenhauer would say the opposite. Even Stephen Hawking said that ‘there’s nothing intrinsically special about life on this planet.’.

    Mind you, ‘The Discourses’ by Epictetus is one of the books that I’d truly take with me on a desert island, and one of the very few that I am always reading again. (Thankfully, the newer editions do away with the sentence ‘slave!’ every two paragraphs, which would otherwise make the whole work rather intolerable).

  6. I was delighted to view this piece on Kahlil Gibran. I’ve had a copy of the Prophet on my book shelf since the late ’60s. Working in San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” as a young man searching for my place in this universe, I was introduced by the Hippies to three important books/ideas circulating among them: “The Prophet, Siddhartha and the Desiderata. I found each a good guide and find myself reciting passages from them often.
    Thank you!

  7. we are from the same era. And I still have the Prophet on my bookshelf too. Reminds me of my youth:)

  8. John, I ought to have added that some of my most profound feelings of loneliness have been standing among crowds of strangers. What I took away from Gibran, H. Hesse and others was an understanding that we are singularly unique. While we were made and came through another, we are not them, nor are they us. The best chance of experiencing those glorious moments of happiness and endure the setbacks and pain of life is learning to care and love others. I am thankful for the Greeks training my young mind but perhaps more grateful for the poets that touched my soul. I can’t say enough how any times I’ve benefited from “avoiding aggressive people that are a vexation to my spirit.” This advice alone has been helpful coping during these irrational, polarized times.

  9. Thanks Kevin for the sage advice. And I remember when the Desiderata was made into a pop song on the radio in the early 70s.

  10. More ‘classically’-oriented poems are as good to read as the ‘modern’ variety. However I have a problem with the melodramatics; prefer the bridge between classic and modern containing a more modern balance of emotion and reason. (But not meaning, naturally.) Feel as if I am drowning in histrionics when I read more classical-type poems. “Woe, woe is me!”

    “Oh woe, woe is me
    O to have been a man in ‘33
    in Paris and fancy there freed
    with Gwendolyn the divine queen.
    Until that June in gay Paree
    seven years later when we did see
    the guns and then so quickly did me
    and Gwendolyn hide, then flee!
    Woe, WOE, the fair queen—
    and me.”

  11. It’s idiosyncratic: don’t like florid poetry. “Whose flowers are solitude” doesn’t appeal to me. Or mention of swans.
    Swans and flowers in poetry?—no thanks.

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