Ernest Hemingway published his highly regarded novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 1940. However, the actual phrase, “for whom the bell tolls”, is attributed to John Donne, who used it in his Meditation XVII, included in a series of meditations published in 1624 under the collective title of “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”. The actual quote has a sense of familiarity to it, in spite of the fact it is 390 years old. Recognize this?
“No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Interestingly enough, the phrase has continued to have a variegated life, apparently functioning as the title of a song by the Bee Gees as well as Metallica, along with various TV episodes which use the title. With all due respect, I would suggest the classic language and breadth of meaning related to this phrase have degenerated with the passing of time. Thus, I feel it is permissible for me to reduce its meaning even further. For yes, this time the bell truly tolls for me. Or more accurately, my dog. Allow me to explain.
We live in a quiet, friendly, simple, keep-to-yourself but look-out-for-each-other neighborhood. Having lived in our home for 19 years, we are one of the “oldies” here. We have had a dog for as long as we have been here. Several of our neighbors have dogs. And we are all OK with it. Except one man. One man who happens to live right behind us on the other side of the fence.
This man falls into the category of “difficult to live around” – if you know what I mean. He has only lived here for about 8 years or so, and I genuinely do not think he has been happy in this neighborhood – ever. But he is especially unhappy about dogs – and in particular, my dog.
He has made his unhappiness about my dog known from the beginning. This has included blowing an air horn when my dog barks or growling at my dog through the fence, which only makes my dog bark more fiercely. All of this we survived with a certain measure of tolerance and desperation. But things reached a new low a few weeks ago.
One afternoon I was in the backyard with my dog, enjoying the warmth and sunshine. The unexpected sound of a drill in a fence post surprised me and caused my dog to start barking. Then I saw a large black cast iron bell rise above the fence post and take a secure position there. A mere seconds later, I heard an evil-sounding laugh coming from the other side of the fence as my neighbor began pulling the string, ferociously ringing the black bell over and over again, causing my dog’s barking to reach a frenzied pace. I quickly realized this bell was not a decoration. It was not a patriotic focal point for his back yard. The bell was tolling loudly. And it was tolling for my dog. It was tolling for me.
How I wished at that time that I were indeed an island unto myself – to not have to deal with the unkind mankind I must face every day! Maybe we could move, I thought. Maybe I could pray he would move. But in spite of all the desperate ideas swirling through my head, I knew in my heart the real solution was for me to return his unkindness with tolerance, his grumpy spirit with a spirit of patience. This is not easy, but it is right. I must be involved with mankind, because God chose to be involved with mankind, loving the unlovely and calling sinners to be His own. For whom doth the bell toll? It tolls for me – reminding me of the Second Greatest Commandment, as spoken by Jesus, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” How I need His help to accomplish this!