When an e-mail falls into my inbox, the computer tolls a virtual bell - the herald of incoming news, information or inanities. A few years back, I received such a summons announcing the death of a college classmate, Bill, who had passed away just days shy of his 49th birthday. He left us at a time of life many consider the most productive years as a person, parent and professional. I didn't know Bill that well. We had a class or two together, played racquetball a few times, and hung out on occasion with mutual friends. To my fading memory, that was about it.
But sitting at my computer when that particular bell tolled gave me pause.
While not overly religious as
As such, I've never been troubled when others haven't shared these convictions, for each individual must find his own way. Admittedly, that road may be tough to locate, let alone navigate. But even an absence of formal religion shouldn't isolate anyone from empathy.
In 1624, the English Jacobean poet John Donne summed it up best in his now-famous Meditation XVII by penning the expression "no man is an island.
Yet four centuries later, we seem increasingly to favor support of our fellow humans as an end unto itself, not necessarily as a means to search for greater purpose. So something about a death notice as social media left me awfully unsettled.
To this end, Donne's refrain is now grand opera. From that same passage, we've dressed up phrases such as "for whom the bell tolls" in the stuff of Hollywood marquees - all because of that crafty Hemingway, and other pop culture references now magnified by the Internet.
But while the advent of the Digital Age accelerated our pace of interaction, it also created a façade of greater efficiency and access. This brought with it the anxiety of instant gratification.
Even when first reading the notice of Bill's death, I embarrassed myself by not disengaging from the flood of data that demanded the next task, an additional requirement, or my attention to something gratuitous, such as a Facebook or Twitter alert.
As with other events in my life that have caused me shame and forced me to change my ways - sometimes sooner than others - eventually I got the message. Dropping everything, I left my office and sat down with a copy of my old yearbook and an edition of Donne.
For the next hour, I sought to remember Bill, who apparently had touched many lives in our decades apart. He went on to several successful careers, was admired as a leader and friend, and by all accounts had a wonderful family. A mysterious ailment swooped into his life three months earlier and claimed it, leaving behind more questions than answers.
Donne tries to explain such ordeal by using the metaphor of tolling church bells.
It was a brilliant choice. Until the 20th century, bells remained the community herald of important events, such as one's suffering, as well as the call to prayer. While distress can build character in this life, Donne claimed it is in the next one where man finds his true measure.
Perhaps one day the consolation of faith will blanket Bill's sons and daughters as they enter adulthood and reconcile the untimely loss of their father. What they find on that road will depend as much on Bill's legacy as it will on them.
For me, the Digital Age could wait. I put away my yearbook and Donne, turned off my cell phone, and for the first time in years pulled out a pencil and some paper to write my weekly column.
With different bells tolling, the rest of my work seemed far less important.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @TellyHalkias