The Toll

An adaptation of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17
By: Lindsay Lawley Rerecich
Perhaps the latest person added to the coronavirus infection toll is so sick that she neither knows nor cares where the toll stands. Perhaps I myself am an unacknowledged part of that same toll in greater ignorance: carrying danger around in my respiratory system while I feel no symptoms at all. Now more than ever, I am aware of our connectedness. What I do could infect or protect my neighbor; what my neighbor does could infect or protect me. We are one body.
I am used to hearing that sort of language from church. In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes that no body part can say “I am not part of the body” because they are all connected. But as the novel coronavirus first emerged, that is precisely what many of us did. News outlets, leaders, and individuals insisted that this disease was a problem for someone else, somewhere else. And yet, it spread—interpersonally, internationally, inexorably—and now the whole Human Body is sick, watching the toll climb.
English speakers did not start talking about a toll as an assessment of damage until fairly recently, in the late nineteenth century. Long before then, though, the tolling of church bells brought people news of births, marriages, alarms, and deaths… the latter, I imagine, ringing in a slow, solemn dirge. There is not an etymological connection between these two tolls—the funeral bells and the death counts—but there is an emotional one. Our smartphones and screens are the church bells now, relentlessly ringing fresh news of another case reported, another restriction passed, another shortage feared, another life lost. Who can shut their ears to so many bells?
Meanwhile, isolation and social distancing try to make us islands to and from which the virus cannot spread. This makes sense biologically, and by observing these practices, we may force the tolling bells to slow their clamor and the tolls of infection and death to slow their rise. But such isolation, important as it is physically, must not extend psychologically and spiritually.
No one is really an island, completely whole alone. Every one of us is part of the human mainland. When a wave washes away even a single grain of sand from our collective shore, we are all the lesser for it. Every increase in the death toll, every ring of the bell, reminds me that life is fragile—mine included. I do not need to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me.
This might seem to increase my anxiety, but perhaps not. By recognizing that I share vulnerability as part of humankind, I affirm something beyond myself. Each individual affliction leads to a communal awareness that is often lacking outside of crisis. Every year, millions of people die of preventable causes like hunger and violence, and many people in privileged parts of the world never know. But the novel coronavirus, infecting us all indiscriminately, makes us all acknowledge our shared mortality. That acknowledgement can lead to fear: to panicking, hoarding, and treating others as threats to be contained, or it can lead to hope: calming, supporting, and treating others as fellows in this together.
I choose hope. Because ultimately, the coronavirus toll reminds me that life is precious, and it is bigger than me.