Autumn is a symbolic time of dying, and yet we celebrate a harvest fest with Thanksgiving in the heart of it all. Families and friends come together for a communal meal, a real-time blessing, where stories are passed down from generation to generation to keep the family mythology going through time. We tell of our wins and losses, our loves and heartbreaks; we joke, we laugh, we cry, but most importantly we remember why we are a family.
In these moments it’s a little easier to remember, how do we put aside our differences and come together again?
Our society is based on rules that help govern our interpersonal relationships, we call them “manners.” Our agreed upon societal rules have been breaking down for quite some time with a spirit of “all about me” trespassing into what used to be a civilization; with the core word being “civil.” We are no longer as civil to one another as we used to be because of our disconnect from one another.
Screens have been a big part of separating us from one another, so I intentionally insert a few low tech days into my English classes, especially with my sophomores.
Low tech days mean we put the laptops away and we look up at one another. Headphones come out, and conversations go a little deeper. The screens are turned off and we read from the printed paper. We talk face-to-face more. We read each other’s body language and tune in to physical emotions…perhaps we feel the stories a little more acutely.
Recently my sophomores finished the Holocaust memoire Night by Elie Wiesel, and on a low tech day, we used the 16th Century reflection “Meditation XVII” by John Donne (pronounced “done”) as a companion piece to one lesson, “How can something that happened a long time ago have meaning for me today?” In “Meditation XVII,” Donne takes the time to reflect on the connectedness of all people. In the meditation, he tells the audience that he has dysentery and feels like he is dying (and at the time he might have been, but eventually he is cured). He hears the church bell toll the hour and wonders if the bell is tolling his own death and if he is dead and doesn’t know it. Throughout the meditation, he points to how we are all connected through Christianity, that our Baptism makes us part of the body of Christ, and that when one of those members passes away we should take notice and use that life and death to reflect on our own life and eventual death. How do we want to live, and what legacy do we want to leave behind? How do we want to make the world a better place, and what stories do we want people to tell about us with our passing?
The famous phrase, “No man is an island, unto himself,” comes from this meditation, and I used this opportunity to talk about community with my students. John Donne says, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…” Of course, this extends past the gender of a person but he makes an excellent point: we can relate to any person because of our humanity and we should make an effort to do so. Our lives are not lived in seclusion; we are all in this together and many times need to be reminded of this involvement. Our misery can either be shouldered solely by ourselves or be shouldered by those we love and trust; we don’t have to suffer alone.
We have the body of humanity to help us shoulder our burdens.
Elie Wiesel takes the opportunity through his book to help us all shoulder the burden of humanity’s sins; we can’t let the atrocity of the Holocaust happen again—we are all responsible for what happens around us because we are all part of humanity and we should relate to everyone on the basis of our humanity. We can’t unring a bell, but we can be responsible for allowing someone to pull the rope. “…If by this consideration of another’s danger I take my own into contemplation…” Another person’s pain can and should give us cause to stop and contemplate our own pain—but it should also help us recognize that we all suffer.
Elie watches his father die as they are on the verge of liberation. His father’s last words were his son’s name. Elie devotes his life to himself as a young man who lost his childhood in the concentration camps; he wanted to be an enlightened mystic rabbi when he was 13 years old. During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Elie says he talks to that lost boy, “And now the boy is turning to me. ‘Tell me,’ he asks, ‘what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?’ And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices…”
“And then I explain to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe”
For whom the bell tolls? It tolls for thee and me; we are all in this together, and we need each other.
So don’t be surprised when someone asks for help and don’t be surprised when someone offers to help you.
Accept the help, accept the hurt, accept the community, accept the acceptance that we can’t get along in seclusion and that we all need help from time to time. Accept the fact that we are all family and we need to put aside our differences and laugh, cry, fight, hug, but eventually sit down together and tell our stories.