12/24/2014 11:00 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2015

A Year Nearly Donne: Reflections on the Family of Man

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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 if a manor of thy friend's

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.

-- John Donne

No man -- no person -- is an island, much as the restive waves of daily strife may contrive to dissemble. We are social creatures at every level, from the restorative intimacy of a timely caress; to the practiced choreographies of culture; to the survival exigencies of brute biology. Other animals are bigger, stronger, faster. True, we are smarter -- but one smart primate is still apt to be dinner for a great cat, bear, or wolf pack. But a tribe of smart primates changes everything. It has changed everything. And here we are.

No one is an island. The salience of that is most indelible in the turnings of our innermost circles. Whatever the quests, wherever the taunting windmills in need of subjugation- our reasons, resilience, and fortitude derive from home. Certainly, I confess that of myself, as I have recently done. Love is the food of more than mere survival. Family is the sustenance that matters most.

But the family of man has grown vast and fractious; widely dispersed, and highly diverse. And perhaps we have all been made a bit dizzy by distances and diversities -- and so see islands where there should be none.

We see us and them; east and west; right and left; catholic and protestant; Arab and Jew; cop and civilian. We see black and white.

This, too, is born of those tribal beginnings, and even has a name: xenophobia, fear of the different. When the family of man was scattered clans, faces you could trust were faces you knew. Foreign faces -- foreign by no particular measure, just unfamiliar -- were a source of potential danger. They might want what we had, and what we needed. And so we needed to be insular, and clannish; dubious, and defensive; suspicious, and territorial.

Paradoxically, then, it is our ineluctable interdependence that populates the spaces that drive us apart. Were we loners -- were we islands -- we might spare one another a wary eye across an expanse of sea, but trouble one another no further. But trouble one another we do- because we are no islands. Because we need one another. And so it is we confront one another like stones in a tumbler, rough angles abrading, until time wears all smooth and we are left to wonder: why?

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins famously, and provocatively, traces the apparent complexities of modern civilization to the simple imperative for replicative success encoded in our DNA. But though devoted to the pervasive imprint of genes on our proclivities, fads, and fashions -- Dawkins lands in a very different place. Coining, in the 1970s, the now widely used term, "meme," Dawkins concluded his epiphany by confounding it.

True, the complexities of metropolis and metabolism alike might be traced to some long lineage of genetic advantage. But like a child growing into abilities never owned by either parent, culture might shake off the thoughtless priorities encoded in a parade of nucleotides. We could decide our fate.

That, then, is ever the promise as one year winds down and another coalesces from our hopes and aspirations. Why, otherwise, make all the fuss about what is really just one more tick of the relentless metronome? The magic is not in that addition of one more inconsequential increment to time; it is the symbolism of birth, and newly pristine possibility.

No one is an island. Much might be gained from the practical expressions of that within the parochial confines of my own pursuits. Dieting should die- for we diet alone, but live it together, and only together are truly strong. In unity, and only in unity, there is genuine, human strength.

Parents and children should pursue health together, for neither is likely to find it alone. Family is the cornerstone of culture, and culture is the medium in which years added to life, life added to years most readily proliferate. We can defend the health of our bodies alone with an application of skillpower, but will more readily recognize sustainable success when the body politic is on our side.

But of course, our aspirations extend far beyond the parochial. They extend from the resolution of lesser resentments that foment themselves too readily between us, to the restitution of our greater family -- the family of man. Can we even really imagine a world at peace? Can we even imagine seeing one another past the primitive veil of xenophobia, and perceiving the family resemblance? Can we imagine a world where we pull on the common bond of our humanity, and it never breaks?

As a new year looms, I imagine that we can imagine it. And it begins there -- for imagination is the plea to weary limbs against the tug of gravity's constant tether. Dream is the goad to one last, unlikely step past surrender; and then more improbably still, the next, and yet the next. The best way to predict the future is to create it. The best way to defy the deep divide -- is to build a bridge.

A New Year soon begins. My most fervent hope for next year is that long before it's over, it's more nearly Donne -- than ever this year was.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP has a pretty good imagination.

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity

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Author: Disease Proof