WHO ARE WE — REALLY?
By NANCY PATRICK
In 1624, British poet John Donne wrote “Meditation 17” as part of a larger collection of devotional pieces. The theme of the meditation relates to the interconnectedness of humankind. The first part delineates how people—regardless of location, race, social status, or religion—connect to one another as parts of humanity even if the individuals know nothing of the others’ lives.
Donne ends the devotion: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . 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.”
Putting aside the archaic language, Donne’s deep, intellectual, and universal insights provide relevant application for today. Most people would recognize his words “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (one of Hemingway’s novels borrows the words); however, many would not understand the words’ historical or present relevance.
As many people tend to limit their thinking to local and national concerns, they often ignore the importance of global recognition and participation. Many of us busy ourselves so much with keeping our nation ahead of others educationally, economically, militarily, and medically that we view life as a competition. Unfortunately, competition can breed selfishness, pride, insensitivity, and arrogance; however, sometimes something happens that brings the people of the world to their knees in humility.
For several weeks, a world pandemic COVID-19 or coronavirus) has held the world hostage. The virus, originating in the Wuhan province of China, began receiving public attention as the number of patients rose, but quite quickly the virus began to pop up in other locations. The political and geographical divisions among nations do not keep people from visiting countries all over the world.
As the disease spread rapidly throughout Asia and Europe, entire countries essentially shut down in an attempt to contain the virulent disease. As Americans began returning home from overseas trips, they brought the virus with them, thus causing the United States to join the world in the fight against this disease that has sickened and killed thousands around the world.
Each country’s leadership has set standards for travel, health care, quarantine, and testing. The virus has forced the United States to acknowledge that we share humanity with the world’s population. For centuries, America has somewhat isolated itself from the larger globe because of its distance from the rest of the world.
Even though America participated in both World Wars, it waited to join the fray until it became abundantly clear that continuing war would ultimately harm the nation’s economic and political status in the world. War-weary America realized that although isolation can provide some protection, it cannot alleviate responsibility.
Donne’s opening paragraph challenges us to recognize our individual and collective places in the larger world. Even island countries depend on other countries for imports as they export their own resources. Individuals as well as nations rely on others for survival.
Applying the principle to individuals rather than nations, we can learn how our gifts and talents might benefit other individuals just as we might benefit from theirs. For example, I have a reputation as a fairly decent cook and enjoy my time in the kitchen. I do not, however, understand mechanical things. I might electrocute myself if I tried to change out an electrical outlet. Those two facts work well in my marriage because my husband cannot cook, but he can fix most of my mechanical problems.
Complementary abilities within families appear more readily than they do on a larger societal scale. In dealing with the pandemic, we have observed empty store shelves as people have hoarded supplies in fear of shortages. Even though authorities have told us that supplies remain available, some distrust the information and want to make sure their family has all the toilet paper, canned beans, and cleaning supplies they could possibly need for an extended time.
Faced with this dilemma, what do we do? What if I have full pantries because I stocked up on supplies but my neighbors do not? What if their house runs out of canned goods or toilet paper? What if my neighbor rings my doorbell to ask for help? I face an important decision: do I share my goods or simply quote James 2:16 to them: “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed”? After all, I planned for the crisis just for this reason. I did not want to run short of supplies.
Donne imparts an important lesson about our status as “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” In our emphasis on individuality, we must not overlook the importance of community. Just as my hands and feet merely attach to my larger frame, they add great quality to my existence. Although they are not essential such as hearts and lungs, I would hate to lose them.
Donne says any “man’s death diminishes me” because each human being adds special qualities, abilities, nuances, and subtleties to the entirety of life. Some of the sweetest nuances I sense around me emanate from individuals who do not wield the most impressive or powerful presences. Many have special needs though they love, cheer, encourage, work, persevere, and live among those different from themselves. They season the blander portions of the human recipe that comprises the stew of life.
Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting story “The Masque of Red Death” reminds us that no matter how wealthy, beautiful, or powerful people seem, they cannot lock out the larger world. Prince Prospero, the main character, decides to barricade his influential friends and himself in his castle to prevent the deadly plague in his country from finding them. Unfortunately for them, the plague does find them as it does ordinary people, and each dies a mortal’s death.
We have learned that we share a weakness for certain viruses and global financial reversals; perhaps now we can recognize our own small but important part in humankind. Whenever a bell tolls for anyone, it should remind us that one day it will toll for us. Each tolling of the bell signals a unity among all who share one world and should remind us that we are stronger together than singly.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing