In 2003, as I prepared to teach a course we titled “Mindless Violence”, I discovered
that I had used a phrase for a long time and yet had no idea what it meant. The
phrase is …. “to bear witness.” It is one of those concepts that I
thought I understood based on the context in which I read it or recited it ___
but as I prepared to explain it to our research group I realized I had no idea
what it really meant.
Sister Mary Lou Kownacki became my teacher
in her book titled The Nonviolent Moment. She teaches that when others
trust us enough to allow us into the arena where they experience deep pain, we
are to bear witness to that pain. I was learning then and I am still
learning now that I am not very good at standing with others in their pain because
I have a strong desire to “fix” pain and if I can’t fix it, I “fight” it. Of
course the truth is there are just some things we cannot fix and fighting them
doesn’t reduce their power, it only negates ours.
I’m finding that
bearing witness is leading me to a more sensitive hearing and observation of
others. To stand in the presence of hurt, confusion, perceived failure,
loneliness and guilt without pushing for a remedy or suggesting a quick solution
is part and parcel of learning to see things from the perspective of the other. The
quick fix and the fighting of reality seem to solidly reflect only my perspective
and my own lack of faith. Faith that God is in everything including
the fear, sadness and sometimes hopelessness expressed by those I love.
Rogers said you have to go around and stand behind a man so you can see what
he sees, from his perspective. That would take a lot of time and energy
in a world of brief encounters and constant demands. And that awareness
leads me to the reality that if I am to bear witness to the pain of others it
will cost me something ….. maybe the fixing and the fighting was always intended
to simply limit the cost to me.
Today I find myself in a position
that calls for bearing witness to significant pain in the life of someone whose
suffering defies quick answers and handy remedies. As I struggle to
abstain from fixing and/or fighting I’m growing in my awareness that in reality
we cannot be separate from those who suffer. We are connected to them
and they to us, and once we listen to their stories we want to act. Sometimes
I think our movement toward action is a pure desire to alleviate the suffering
of the one who stands before us. But more often than not I suspect
my motivation might be to end my own discomfort.
Sister Mary Lou
said “to be present to suffering, just present, without offering answers is how
we most radically follow Jesus’ invitation to ‘remember me.’”
If I am to
bear witness today I will have to accept that it will cost me something and I
will have to embrace the discomfort that will be mine. To be that
generous is a serious spiritual practice and I cannot do it alone. Only
with God’s help and in the company of others can we set aside our selves in order
to love someone else.