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 friends 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.
This poem by John Donne has been a favorite of mine since the first time I read it. It describes the interconnectedness of humanity, something we’re recognizing globally as this virus continues to spread. Measures of physical isolation, to varying degrees, have been instituted across the world.
I want to hone in on two ideas related to this poem and to our current shared experience. The first thing is this idea of social distancing and interconnectedness. The longer these measures are drawn out, the more many people will realize for the first time that we actually need one another. We weren’t made to go through life alone. Sure, some personalities have a greater capacity to remain alone for extended periods, but human contact is essential for our well-being. This is what makes something like a pandemic particularly hard. In order to stop it, we have to limit our connections. It goes against something that has been built into us, community. “It is not good that man should be alone.“
The second thing I want to draw attention to is empathy. Donne finishes this poem recognizing that at each funeral bell we hear, a small part of us dies as well. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and many lives are being lost. It remains to be seen what the impact of the virus will be here in the US or even in many other parts of the globe where it is just now beginning to spread. Nevertheless, I think we would be better for it to recognize the loss of life and empathize with those in pain because whether we like it or not, we’re involved in mankind. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.“