In the middle ages there was a custom in European villages to ring the church bells for deaths. The common reaction to hearing the melancholy chime was to question, “was it somebody I know? was it somebody I love?” In 1624 John Donne questioned this practice saying, “[N]ever send to know for whom the bellsÂ tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This phrase wasn’t real to me until the morning of September 11, 2001. I arrived to my economics class only to see the faces of all the students glued to an image on the television of two flaming buildings. Â We watched in horror as the first and then the second building crumbled like match stick houses. I didn’t know anybody in the buildings that day, at the Pentagon or on any of the three hijacked planes. But the morning was one of the most tragic days of my life.
The next hours and days I spent glued to the television. I had never watched so much tv in my life, yet I couldn’t look away. I remember attending the funeral of a great uncle when I was younger and thinking, “I should try to cry, try to be sad,” but it was hard because I didn’t really know that uncle. I didn’t have a relationship with him. I find it perplexing how much more emotional I was over the tragedies of 9/11. I was deeply effected by this tragedy to total strangers and I know that I was not alone.
It is estimated that when the second tower of the World Trade Center fell there were over 1 billions viewers watching it on live TV, worldwide. Three years before Facebook was started and five years before Twitter existed, one tragic moment connected human kind. Never before in history had so many been connected for a single moment.
As a result, patriotism was reborn in America. The American flag went from being an old fashioned decoration to being a symbol of the pride we feel for our nation. Donations flooded in, blood banks were overwhelmed by generous people wanting to help however they could and church attendance of ever denomination surged. We were changed that day.
The cynics in our society, of which we have plenty, complain that “a few weeks later everything was back to normal.” Or they point to the costly wars and lives lost since then and claim that it was all for nothing.
I plainly disagree with this skepticism. In one of the darkest hours for America in my lifetime, we pulled together. In that moment when all Americans glimpsed the fragility of life and for a second truly appreciated everything we have- we recognized in ourselves the potential to do something more, be something better.
Something stirred in us that day. A part of us that many didn’t know existed was revealed. Even if we try to ignore it, try to return to our mundane lives, years later we can never forget what we learned about ourselves in that moment of crisis and tragedy. We are profoundly connected as human beings and it has nothing to do with a high speed internet connection.
For those that haven’t read the John Donne poem mentioned above, here it is:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man 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 thy friend’s or
of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes
me, because I am involved in mankind, and
therefore never send to know for whom the bells
tolls; it tolls for thee.”
-John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls (No man is an island).