"No man is an island... any man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind...Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -- John Donne, Meditation XVII.
In general, I agree with John Donne's thoughts here, although I probably understand it in a different way than he did. It seems evident to me that all life is connected in some way, and to varying degrees. Whether it be humans' connections to the various animals who are serving as the canaries in our mine of global warming or the common experiences of all people around the world, everything is connected and has some effect on everything else. Perhaps more than some, I tend to feel that connection deeply. I regularly go on news boycotts because I feel overwhelmed by the pain and tragedy it presents. I feel empathy when anyone dies. I've even been known to cry for strangers, and some fictional characters. So it came as a bit of a shock when I had to acknowledge that I had a few exceptions to that sense of connection.
Yesterday word came of the death of a person that I used to be related to. This person had disliked, maybe even hated, me almost from the minute we met. There was seemingly nothing I could do to win her over, so in time I simply withdrew. I learned later that her hatred for me continued for decades, long after there was no tie between us. But when I was told that she had died, I felt absolutely nothing. I wasn't happy that she had died nor was I sad about it. There was just a void where any feeling might have been.
This was only mildly shocking because I had an even more extreme case of it years earlier. Then it concerned a family member who was chronically abusive and actively looked for ways to harm her nearest relatives. When she died, the only way to describe my feelings would be a huge "Who Cares?' The only pain that I felt then was the horror of acknowledging just how terribly she had treated me and others.
In both cases, I managed to say all of the expected things and resist giving voice to what I was thinking about the individual. But I also couldn't help but analyze this seeming disjoint between how I thought I was and these glaring exceptions. It is a testament to my personal growth that I didn't feel that there was something wrong with me for not feeling sorrow. And I didn't try to force myself to feel something that I didn't feel. I was more curious about whether these examples were the exceptions that proved the rule or if many people respond in a similar way, but it goes unexpressed because we aren't supposed to speak ill of the dead, no matter what.
I also wondered a little bit if I have provoked the same lack of connection in others. And I am certain that there are a few other people, who used to mean something in my life, for whom I will feel nothing when they pass. And when it happens, I will say the appropriate meaningless words so that no one knows that I feel nothing. But now I know that it does not indicate something lacking in me. And as long as I don't tap dance on their graves, that is all right.
Teacher Voices: Kate Bartlett - This is a continuation of my series of interviews with former students who are now teachers. The interview on this page features Kate Bartlett, a teacher ...
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