Friday, March 13, 2020

Our Shared Fate

John Donne knows what's up

A lot of the tragic inequalities of American life are caused by the refusal of many people to acknowledge that they share a common fate with others. The suburbanites who keep poorer people from accessing their schools through restrictive zoning, those with insurance who push against the expansion of health care, and the people who inherit their wealth and do not allow it to be shared all think this way. In the past forty years the neoliberal onslaught has made community even weaker than it's historically been in this individualistic nation.

However, we all share a common fate, whether we like it or not. That is the lesson of the coronavirus. Germs and microbes don't care what neighborhood you live in or how much money is in your bank account. The powerful and the lowly have both been sickened by this disease. This is a terrible time, but maybe we can use it to reflect on our common fate, and learn to live for each other instead of just living for ourselves. The selfish mentality has led to a society where public health funding has been gutted and the president's response to the virus is to close borders instead of giving more resources.

These words from John Donne has been reduced to cliche because we have failed to hear his radical message. Read him now, with new eyes in our current crisis, and reflect:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each 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 thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
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.

It is easy for the selfish to say "it's just the sick and old who are dying from this, I'll be fine." That is a monstrous mentality, for as Donne says, we are all of the same community. We all have a "pre-existing condition": we are mortal beings fated to die. With the little time we have on this earth let us recognize our shared fate, and act on it. It's not too late.

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