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
Nearly every time I think of John Donne, I remember the concluding lyrics of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King. This is admittedly an odd reaction to a centuries-old English poet, but there’s a reasonable explanation, I swear!
When I was in high school, I did an assignment on a meditation Donne wrote about friendship. (I think Donne wrote it; someone else may have.) He argued that friendship and romance take away from each other: as a man grows closer to his romantic partner, he grows farther from his friends. His affections become divided.
I explained this concept in my assignment. When I received it back from my teacher, I found the following words scribbled in the margin: “And if he falls in love tonight….” These apt lyrics from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are easily the best thing anyone has ever written on any of my homework.
I’ve read hardly anything by Donne, but one of his statements is very famous. It provided the title for one of Earnest Hemingway’s novels. Heck, even I’ve quoted it. It’s his statement on our shared humanity: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In other words: If someone dies, and the funeral bell rings, don’t ask who died. It was a fellow human, and as a member of the human race, you just lost a piece of yourself. The bell rings for you.
On a related note, I’ve been hearing a lot of sirens lately.
I listen to the sirens as they sing me back to sleep.
I pray that no one’s seriously hurt.
It feels like everything is dying at the pivot point of me.
I listen to the sirens tell me things could still be worse.
~ Relient K
I live in a quiet corner of Indiana. There aren’t many violent crimes around my home. Throughout the United States, however, there has recently been a number of shootings. It’s old news at this point, and I won’t rehash the sordid details. It’s enough to know that a lot of people have lost loved ones. A lot of people are angry. A lot of people are scared.
None of this affects me directly. I’m a white dude in a small town in Indiana. I never hear gunshots; the loudest things around here are geese and firecrackers. The tragedies across the US are just headlines on the Internet and blurred articles in the newspaper. My immediate reaction is to say “That’s really sad,” and then to get back to whatever I was doing.
It’s exactly the same when I hear sirens. I don’t know whether they’re announcing a medical emergency, a police arrest, or a house on fire—all I know is that sirens are bad news. I often take a moment to pray for those trapped in whatever tragedy summoned the sirens. Beyond that, I’m not affected. Those sirens call for someone else… don’t they?
The truth is that sirens are a lot like Donne’s bells. They’re calling for me. Every siren, online article, and smudged newspaper headline tells me that humankind is broken, and that I’ve lost something.
I’m not sure what to do with that.