No man is an island

SOMETIME last month, I stuffed a suitcase to the brim, hopped on a jetliner and landed in a city quite unlike the Klang Valley hustle and bustle I was familiar with. This city in East Malaysia, with its slower pace, easy-going people and beautiful sunsets, is going to be home for a while.

My introvert soul was ecstatic at the thought of doing up my new apartment, exploring hidden enclaves along the streets and taking a break from the hectic pace – did I mention that over the past few months I had also quit my full-time job, got married and embarked on this adventure with a man who eats an apple down to its stalk every morning?

So, the quiet days ahead with the husband at work seemed very appealing and the opportunity to work on a project from home was a real blessing. We have wonderful neighbours in an "aunty", her three daughters and a great church we are rooting ourselves in.

But friendships and community take time, and it is in the wait that the testing comes. I began experiencing momentary lapses into loneliness; it was a strange feeling I did not know what to do with. In Kuala Lumpur, everyone runs on tight schedules. It can be weeks or months before a meet-up would materialise after seemingly endless planning. So many of us, yours truly included, rarely have do-nothing days.

In contrast, I now had time on my hands with not much of a community to spend it with. Hectic lifestyles wear us out, but dull days too can wear us down. As a person who regularly yearned for alone time, it was surprising to realise that I missed having friends, colleagues and family around. I missed the tapping of keyboards, telephone chatter and stories being told over good food.

On one especially quiet day, I didn't speak to anyone but myself until my husband came home. The time to reflect made me think of a famous phrase from English poet and cleric John Donne's 1624 prose work. While the general interpretation of the text stands that man cannot survive alone, I believe we can. We just do not live in the fulfilment of a full life and heart.

All of us require alone time to recharge, but we also need companionship to be reminded of our value in being alive. I am grateful for a strong faith that keeps me looking upwards and a wonderful life partner who walks alongside me every day.

We are indeed built by community, from the family nucleus to an entire nation. It's a lesson I am only learning now, after leaving my established community behind and having to start over in a new and unfamiliar environment. A great comfort is that I can still call Malaysia home.

In this season of remembering that we are all Malaysians, whether from the East or West, let's work to build strong families and communities. Celebrate the diverse, vibrant cultures we are privileged to be immersed in, and safeguard the peace we enjoy that is rare in so many parts of the world today.

Finally, in whatever ways we can, welcome the stranger who may have had to leave the comfort of familiarity behind and find his or her place in our nation, city or town. As Donne wisely penned, "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main".

In strong communities, we bring out the best in each other. Solitude and self-reflection help us grow, but the warmth of community tells us we belong.