You have probably heard the famous phrase “No man is an island,” whether in a classroom, or being quoted by one of your more pretentious friends. But you might be less familiar with the piece of writing this expression originates from: Meditation XVII by John Donne, a reflection on death that the writer composed during his recovery from a serious illness in 1623.
Though the work contains deeply religious themes, its message is universal: All of mankind is connected as a whole, and each and every death affects us all. The part I find most beautiful is the metaphor of life as a book, in which we are all chapters:
“And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.”
This idea sets us all as equals, and makes every death equally important and moving. No matter who is passing, it should affect us because every human is connected. I also love that Donne rejects the idea of a chapter being “torn out.” Rather, dying is a next stage or “language” that we are “translated into,” an infinitely better stage. It is something that must happen and should be acknowledged.
“God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”
We are all “translated” through different means, but this doesn’t mean we are different or separate from each other. We are not “scattered leaves” alone in this universe; we are allied, and death is a place where we can all be recognized as equal.
Donne goes on to make his point even clearer:
“…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 “bell” he refers to is the bell that churches in his time would ring for each member of the congregation who passed away. But regardless of whom it is being rung for, it reminds Donne that his own death is inevitable. Thus, every tolling is important: each is a reminder and a signal that one of our own has gone.
The poet also makes sure to note that mourning each death does not cheapen our grief in
any way, but rather, helps us grow:
“Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarcely any man hath enough of it.”
The idea of suffering as a treasure is one that I believe not enough people take into consideration; certainly in the moment suffering is miserable, but so much more is gained by the end result. And, according to Donne, very few of us have enough “affliction.” No matter what we may think, we could always use more, in order to develop. As he states in the next line, “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it…” There is real value in sadness and mourning, because we become stronger people for it.
Finally, John Donne concludes by further examining this benefit:
“Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God…”
In thinking of others’ pain, we are made better for it and reflect on our own lives. We cherish them, as well as become open to the concept of death. Overall, death really makes us grateful for our own lives, and this could be the greatest treasure of all.
You can take a look at the full piece here.