John Donne reflects on the theme of shared suffering and the connections between all people in his famous “Meditation 17.” Let's look at how he expresses this theme. He begins with a quotation in Latin and English: “Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.” The meditation explains and expands on the quotation.
Donne begins by reflecting that perhaps the dying person for whom the bell tolls is too sick to realize that it is tolling to announce his imminent death. Then he wonders if perhaps he himself might not understand how sick he is. In that case, the bell might be tolling for him, and he wouldn't even know it. No matter what, he is intimately connected to the person for whom the bell tolls, for they are members of the same universal church. Whenever a child is baptized, he explains, that child becomes part of the church as Donne himself is. Therefore, that child is connected to him, for they are part of the same body. When someone dies, that action affects Donne as well, for he is connected to that person who is also part of the same body. The bell calls not just to the dying one but also reminds each person of their own sickness and weakness and of their connection to other people.
Later in the meditation, Donne writes, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” In other words, all people are connected. No one is truly isolated so that their behavior affects no one else or that no one else affects them. If even one little bit of land is washed away, Donne continues, that loss affects the entire continent, making it less than it once was. Similarly, Donne argues, if any one person dies, everyone else is diminished in some way as well because, as Donne explains, “I am involved in mankind.” When the bell tolls, it tolls for each of us, not just for the dying person, because each of us has lost a little part of ourselves with the death.
Donne is implying in all this that we cannot live as though other people and their sufferings do not matter to us. We must be conscious of the troubles and afflictions of others, helping as we can but also allowing these difficulties to remind us that we are not secure in this life but only in God.