My father introduced me to John Donne. I don’t know that John Donne was his favorite poet, but he always quoted him to me. Any time I told him stories about bullies in school, or if I felt like a teacher was not fair with one of my classmates, or if I heard of people being abused (it was the late 70’s/early 80’s and child abuse was coming to the forefront of people’s minds) and said something ridiculous like “it’s not my business” or “I don’t want to get involved” I was sure to get a dose of the Bard of Bread Street.
The work my father loved the most was “Meditation XVI” or as it is commonly known, “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” It is the third paragraph that has always fascinated me. The scope of it is enormous. This paragraph actually contains the colloquial title as well as the cliched “No man is an island.”
As I always say, in the interest of full disclosure, I was motivated to write this post for two reasons: 1) I have used this in lectures and sermons more times than I can count, but have never written it down, and 2) A tweep of mine, Matthew Turner, corrected someone’s quote earlier tonight and it really got me thinking about this. So, let’s consider paragraph three of Meditation XVI. Read below:
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.
The actual quote correction was due to someone misquoting Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. who said in his famouse Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In light of this statement by Dr. King, let’s consider the enormous scope and tremendous weight of responsibility with which we are confronted by Donne’s statements.
“No man is an island” – I often think of the character Lenny Kosnowski from the TV show “Laverne & Shirley” when I hear this famous quote. For those who don’t remember this televised gem, Lenny was never seen without two things: 1) His red & black racing jacket which was stitched on the back with his moniker “Lone Wolf” and, 2) his best friend Andrew “Squiggy” Squigman. It’s a nothing kind of joke, but, nevertheless, I always remember Lenny, because it was this character that demonstrated Donne’s point. One can consider himself a loner, but it is impossible to exist without community… even if your community is an aging greaser.
“Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” – Here again we see that the underlying thought which Donne is attempting to declare as truth is that there is a connection between every person no matter our differences. I’ve never been to Washington State. I’ve always wanted to go. I’ve never been to Nebraska. I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to go. Regardless, both are part of The United States of America, and without them America would be diminished. That leads me to…
“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” – This is huge, especially in our “I don’t care if you get yours, but I’m gonna get mine” culture. Donne says here that if your friend’s house is somehow harmed (think fire, accident, Act of God, termite infestation, etc.) it is no different than if the same thing had happened to us. This leads me to what is, for me, the most important and life-changing statement in this paragraph.
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” – Donne is, in this meditation, considering death as signified by the tolling of the bell (note: the title of this post translates “Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, you too must die.”); Ergo, his reference to another’s death. However, this has come to mean something so much more to me. It is not simply true that another man’s death diminishes me; but an injustice to another person is an injustice to me; physical harm to another is harm done to me; immorality against another is… you get the idea. But by extension, whatever responsibility is given to the one harmed is placed on my shoulders as well.
Practically speaking, though I may never have known the horror of bing physically abused by my parents, I am responsible to speak for those who have. Though I may never have felt the sting of police brutality because of the color of my skin, I am responsible to speak for those who have. Though I may have never known the despair of homelessness, I am responsible to do what I can for those I encounter.
To close, I paraphrase, Any person’s troubles or pain harms me, for I am a part of the whole of mankind. I add the implication, “As a child of God I am responsible to do whatever I can to help those in need.”