Day Thirteen: John Donne

For Whom the Bell Tolls

This is how Americans like to think of themselves. Image by license from Adobe Stock.

John Donne

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.

I don’t spend a whole lot of time on Facebook, so I don’t know, but I’d guess I’m not the first one to think of this piece of prose, often reinterpreted as a poem, in connection with recent days.

American society celebrates individualism. It is an integral part of our psyche, imbued in our national mythology. We like to think of ourselves as latter-day cowboys, out riding the range, with nothing but a good horse, a bedroll, a pot, and some beans. (Oh, and our guns. Always our guns.) And if our saddle has been replaced by an office chair, we still feel like we are going it alone, dependent on nothing but our own wits.

There is something romantic about this idea. Perhaps it is that it paints us as supremely competent. Perhaps it is only that it reminds us of pleasant interludes of solitude in our lives.

But whatever its appeal, rugged individualism is a myth. Cowboys came back to the chuck-wagon eventually. And we, in our office chairs, are dependent on a gobsmackingly large supply chain for our food, clothing, and miscellany, to say nothing of the (crumbling) infrastructure needed to transport it, and us.

Image licensed from Adobe Stock.

In this time of pulling together by staying apart, it is worth remembering that we aren’t the Marlborough Man. There never was a Marlborough Man. We are utterly dependent on grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, delivery personnel, and farm laborers, to mention just a few of the professions which are suddenly on the front lines.

And, as part of an interdependent species, our actions impact others. It is one thing to choose to accept the risk of going without a mask for yourself, but something else entirely to force everyone else to accept that risk (especially since masks are more about keeping your germs to yourself rather than keeping other’s at bay.)

Because this is a public health crisis, control measures depend on what we do as members of the public. And make no mistake, we are all, individually, important parts of that aggregate. What we do ripples out and impacts a startling number of others in a startling variety of ways, even if it is something as simple as being an example.

It is not just Donne’s explicit message that every death diminishes us all that we need to be mindful of here, though it is a stark reminder that we must all grieve together right now. It is also the idea that we are part of an ecology, and that our choices and actions in this time of crisis diminish or enrich the whole species.

Signing off. Stay safe and take care of each other.

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