“No man is an island, entire of itself.” I am quite certain that I was not alone in recalling these words when news of the apparently unstoppable coronavirus hit home, although, in my case, those words had a musical accompaniment.
When I was in high school, my choir performed a piece titled “No Man is an Island,” based on that well-known excerpt from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, written in 1623. In keeping with Donne’s grim assertion that death is inevitable, the piece begins with the basses intoning “No man is an island” to a descending minor chord, its descent interrupted by a major seventh, which produces an unsettling dissonance aptly prefiguring the work’s final phrase: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
A virus, not quite a living thing, inhabits a living thing in a remote jungle, or desert, or sea. Somehow, an infected organism comes in contact with a human, who is infected and unknowingly infects others.
In the case of the new coronavirus, by the time someone realized what was happening, the virus had the upper hand, spreading from remote areas to more populous ones, crossing oceans, skipping effortlessly from continent to continent and coast to coast. Indeed, no organism is an island, and no person is an island. Truly, no island is an island! What happens somewhere else and to other people will eventually impact the rest of the world, like secondhand smoke on a global scale.
Yet, while this interconnectedness is unavoidable and, in the current circumstances, terrifying, it is also necessary…and comforting. Unlike secondhand smoke, our connectedness to everyone else on the planet is not inherently bad. People whom I have admired, artists whose careers I have followed for years, are staying at home, just as I am.
Suddenly, I feel a kinship with, for example, Sir Elton John, performing “I’m Still Standing” from his backyard. And this feeling of kinship extends back through history. I have developed a newfound appreciation for what Mary, Queen of Scots must have experienced, placed under house arrest by Elizabeth I for 18 years.
Yes, she was confined to a castle, but Mary’s movements were limited, and she had no control over the terms of her confinement. The thought of interminably “staying at home” brings to mind people who, because of age or illness, are homebound all the time, which, in turn, brings to mind all the people who are incarcerated. Suddenly, my sense of empathy is expanding, spreading in unexpected directions, like beneficent secondhand smoke.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought people together to ease our collective burden in ways that are surprising, innovative, moving, and inspiring. Closet industries, like mask making, have sprung up. Out-of-work restaurateurs are using their talents and resources to feed hospital staffs, other out-of-work people, and people living in shelters.
Though libraries are closed, they are leaving their wi-fi on for anyone in the vicinity to use. With “Write On, Colorado,” The Colorado Sun has provided people like me with an opportunity to reflect and share our thoughts.
These and so many other similar efforts are driven by empathy. While we may not be going through the trials of those we aim to help, we recognize that we could be, because we, too, are only human. We can imagine what others are feeling, because, again, we are human.
Community has always been essential, and many of us are fortunate to experience it among our friends, in neighborhoods, even at work. But it seems to have taken a global crisis to turn our focus, and our empathy, outward, acknowledging that the boundaries that separate us – socioeconomic, political, geographic – are all artificial constructs.
The choral version of “No Man is an Island” that I recalled late last February is not the only one out there. In an effort to credit it, I exhausted the print and online resources currently at my disposal, to no avail. But in the course of my research, I kept running across references to and performances of a more contemporary version by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer.
Written in a sunny major key, ascending tonally and dynamically throughout, its lyrics expound the many ways we can depend upon each other. Donne’s words are augmented, his meaning hijacked a bit, so that instead of being a rumination on death, this piece is a hymn to community and to empathy, both of which transcend all those artificial constructs that divide us.
I suppose I should not be surprised that Donne’s words have inspired such vastly different responses. He wrote Meditation XVII when he was extremely ill, as a means both of facing the difficult truth of his situation and of comforting himself. Certainly the difficult truth of COVID-19 is all around us: staggering death tolls, overflowing morgues, ruined businesses, and derailed lives.
Yet Donne’s words also reveal what might make that difficulty bearable, even turn it around: the assurance that we need not suffer alone, indeed, that our shared humanity can bring us together, making life not just bearable, but ultimately hopeful.
Ruth Burnham is a musician, former teacher and librarian who lives in Denver.