I Hear a Bell Tolling
Though nestled away in the safe cocoon of life on an island, I, as most of us, have found myself shaken by the multiple tremors — manmade and natural — shattering lives around the world. It is especially difficult to process these disasters as they have seemed to dissolve into each other before we can even sort them out or catch our breaths.
For weeks, each successive day of international reporting has drawn our attention to the cascading devastation affecting residents of the cities and villages of northern Japan, who have been stricken by an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear plant failure.
Through a sense of helplessness that envelops me, I think of John Donne’s poem again: “No Man is an Island,” in which the poet affirms that we are each a part of the other.
Donne writes, "No man is an island entire of itself; every man/is a piece of the continent, a part of the main …/any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
In literature, there is a term for introducing a story or characters in the midst of ordinary life; it is in medias res. I cannot help but feel that all of life really happens there — in medias res. It is how we enter the world — in the midst of things. Life for millions of others unknown to me was well under way as I took my first breath and has continued for decades after — for the most part, without my attention.
This cloak of indifference is perhaps inevitable, as on a daily basis we barely have the capacity to care for our immediate and extended families and small circle of friends, let alone to extend ourselves globally. Of course, when calamity happens, as it has in Japan, there is finally a tug on “the continent” that Donne says joins us all at some level of our common humanity. We send emergency funds and materials and we support aid agencies that go into to places we do not or cannot enter.
Though my personal world is shaken and I am frustrated by my own limitations in reaching out, I am grateful for the speed and versatility of the media for bringing me the faces of the people affected, for they call to me. In getting the news to us so quickly, whether it’s through print editions of newspapers and periodicals or through their multiple electronic counterparts, we are made aware. I can no longer hide in my personal preoccupations.
In medias res: I wonder what people were doing just minutes before a wall of water carried them and their worlds away, yet while I think this I sit safely at my desk and write.
We’ve all seen the pictures, the nightmare images. I just cannot fathom them all. . . that is, not until I see the individual faces of a family huddled in a shelter. . . another of an elderly mother clinging to her daughter who has just been found. In their faces I see those of the people I love. I wonder about their losses, their futures and all the unknowns associated with unleashed repercussions, among them the winds carrying radio-active ions into the sea and atmosphere.
I hear a bell tolling and wonder if it is a wake-up call for all of us. If it is, how will we answer? I hear a bell tolling and know it is not just for others; it is for me.