Because I live near Bakersfield College, I sometimes hear a bell tolling the hours of the day. When I do I’m reminded of the poem by John Donne titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and how relevant it is when we think of the pandemic we have gone through as this year ends and the new one begins.
The first two lines of the poem and the last few lines are especially memorable:
“No man is an island
Entire of itself.”
“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.”
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that we are all connected, all one with each other, our family, our friends, our neighbors, strangers and those of other nations. Yet, we too often stress our islands of individuality, forget that we are all linked as a community. In a philosophy class I taught years ago at Bakersfield College, a student from Africa, who later transferred to Stanford University, mentioned that when he first came to our country, he was struck by our emphasis on individuality in contrast to his home’s emphasis on community. The lesson for that day. The lesson for us now.
We are connected to each other in death, as we have seen so many deaths caused by the pandemic; sometimes very personal, as was the death of my daughter’s mother. We have seen so many pictures and heard so many stories of the deaths of loved ones, and doctors and nurses who cared for them, and the Black and Latino communities who have been so drastically affected. Whatever our station in life, the fact is that we will all die and that the deaths of others should always remind us we share that end with all.
We are connected to those who have lost their jobs and their homes and apartments because of the pandemic. Those who are desperate for food for themselves and their children. So many in our communities now face and suffer the unimaginable. And we must think of those who have lost their businesses and the jobs they provided for others.
We are connected to those who are fearful, isolated and lonely, the sick, the old, parents and grandparents. And the students who have lost being with their activities, classes and friends in school; some of whom, out of despair, have sadly taken their lives.
We are connected to those throughout the world, especially those in poor and war-torn countries, who have suffered and died from the pandemic. Starvation is increasing, and we must feel that in our hearts of compassion.
We are connected to all living beings on this planet, on the earth and in the oceans. We must not take them for granted, mistreat them and use them to satisfy our own selfish needs. They have a right to life and to flourish on the planet we all share.
Our lesson is that when this pandemic finally ends, when we are all vaccinated against its scourge, we must not retreat onto our islands of individuality, self interest, politics, religions and discrimination against those we see as different from ourselves. We must remember the lesson from this pandemic: that we are all connected in our bodies, minds and hearts, that the bell tolls not only for others but for us as well. That we must do what is necessary to keep all safe. That we need each other and that this season is a season of love for all.
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.