For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
-John Donne

Ebola has come to the United States (or, to be more specific, Ebola has come to the United States for the first time without our permission). As of the time of posting, there is only one confirmed case in Dallas, and that man, Thomas Duncan, while critically ill, is still alive. The American news media has been covering it extensively, it remains ‘Breaking News’ on CNN, and ‘Dallas’ and ‘Ebola’ have been trending pretty much constantly for a week straight.

To be fair, there has been a great deal of coverage of the African casualties of this latest Ebola outbreak in the United States as well, but Ebola’s arrival on our shores has clarified our focus. This is completely normal and understandable – people are more interested in the goings-on of their own communities than of the communities halfway around the world. It is not necessarily callous to care more about a minor local threat than a major remote one.

But simply because something is normal and understandable doesn’t mean that it should go unexamined. And while the African Ebola patients are in many ways distant from us, their own sufferings so far dwarf our own.

Most English speakers are familiar with the above quote by John Donne; many are also familiar with his quote, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself”. Fewer are aware that they are actually the same quote:

“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.”

This last and most famous part is usually spoken with menace, as though the quote were spooky. It is not. Donne is saying that the death of any man is, in some small way, his own death, and he is the less for it, because he is likewise part of mankind. So, when the church bells ring announcing a death, you need not ask for whom they toll; any man’s death diminishes humanity, and therefore you, and thus, in some measure, they toll for you.

As of writing, more than 3,400 men, women, and children in Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have died of Ebola. The news that Ebola has come, even in a limited way, to the United States may have more immediacy, but we are still diminished by those deaths so far away. So, indulge the news cycle, by all means – I certainly will. But remember: whether the bell tolls for an American or an African, it tolls for thee.

Donne’s most famous quotation appears in his book, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasionswritten when he believed he was dying.

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