The Healing Power of Witnessing
The world has always needed healing. Even in idyllic communities, violence can disturb the peace, and it’s possible war dates back to the time when Homo Sapiens lived among the Neanderthals. We aren’t certain what wiped out those neighbors of ours.
Today, though, things seem desperate. We continue to pollute the land, burn fossil fuels, and hunt animals to extinction. Hatred and intolerance are rampant. Around the world, totalitarian regimes are gaining traction. Politicians and police are abusing their power. Black and brown people are killed simply because they exist. And we can’t even agree to wear masks to keep our neighbors safe. It’s as if we’ve lost whatever humanity we once possessed.
If we are to survive this chaotic time, we must make changes. But how? How do we transform violent groups of people into communities of care and compassion? Gandhi taught us “to be the change we wish to see in the world.” How do we do that?
One answer is that we witness.
Witnessing from a Distance
Of course, not all forms of witnessing are equal. A bystander can witness a robbery, police brutality, a car accident, or a radical act of kindness. This type of witnessing provides validation and emotional support for the traumas and blessings that befall us, and we need it, but it is distant. To witness in this way, we need not develop a relationship, risk our integrity, or put ourselves in danger. It’s the kind of witnessing we do, for instance, when we find a dead body, as I did fifteen or twenty years ago.
I was about to go on my morning run when I came across the body on the dirt road behind our house. The man had been shot. Seeing him, I recalled that, in the middle of the night, during a haze of half-sleep, I had heard something like shooting, but didn’t take it seriously. As it turns out, it was serious, and now a man was dead.
As a good citizen, I brought in the police. While they asked me questions and uncovered clues, I considered the body that had once been a person. A dearth of energy emanated from him, confirming his demise. By witnessing, we mark an event. We say, yes, this thing happened, and it happened this way. That much, I could give this man.
Two years later, I also offered him my witness at the trial of his murderer. Perhaps his family found some closure from it. At least a culprit was found that the state could punish. But I don’t see that this provided much in the way of healing for anyone. If witnessing helps us heal, it’s probably not this kind of witness.
Other Kinds of Witnessing
There are other forms of witness, as well.
Ever since I heard Sting’s song, “They Dance Alone,” the silent witness of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo has stayed with me. Every Thursday afternoon, on that plaza in Buenos Aires, these women gathered to witness to the disappearance of their children during the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet. They held up photos of their lost loved ones so the world would not forget. They demanded answers and sought justice. 
Their movement gained its power from a number of things. There were the Latino reverence for motherhood, the persistence of the women, their bravery when three of their leaders were murdered, and their strength as they endured derision and threats. But there were also the symbols and the rituals: the faces of the missing, the white headscarves they wore, the consistency of their action. Same day, same time, same place, same message: Tell us what happened to our children.
Change is slow. To achieve justice can take years, decades, centuries. For some, it still hasn’t come. Many of the mothers, now grandmothers, don’t know where their children’s bones lie. Blacks and Native Americans still seek reparation.
In the meantime, we witness. We march, we sing, we make demands, and like the grandmothers who, in response to the renewed threat of military rule in their country, have resumed their circling, we don’t give up. Day after day after day, we tell our stories, and in the telling, we craft metaphors and symbols that carry our message to the unconscious where, if we are lucky, they will lodge.
The Witness of Symbols
Symbols are powerful. They inform our values and motivate our actions. That’s why the Black Lives Matter movement has focused so much energy on changing names and replacing statues. When erected in public spaces, monuments to those who condoned the ownership and torture of an entire race of people become symbols of evil. They are a kind of witness of their own.
What stands in our public square defines us. The plaques and statues contain evidence of who we’ve been. If no alternative story is offered to help us understand the context of the messages and no dissenting symbols are provided to temper what we learn from them, what stands in our plazas and our schoolrooms help make us who we are now.
Those words and images that witness to cruelty and greed need a place in our collective memory, for the same reason that Nazi gas chambers have been preserved, so we do not forget. There’s a difference, though, between the stark and brutal representation of a horror that is repented of, as the gas chambers are in Germany, and the triumphant figure of a General Robert E. Lee or a proud President Roosevelt, flanked by a kneeling Indian and black man. These latter images witness to the supremacy of whiteness and the prerogative of our forefathers to take lives and steal land.
The Nazi monuments in Germany stand as a cry of mourning and a call for acceptance. Our American monuments enshrine the white man’s power over others. They sanctify virility, revenge, punishment, rugged individualism, and extravagant wealth. They make of freedom, a mockery, and of equality, a desecration.
If we are to become a nation of people who revere kindness and compassion, we need a different kind of witness.
To Witness by Listening
Perhaps the difference lies in our ability not just to tell our stories, but also to listen to those of others. Hearing is at least as important as speaking. If no one witnessed to the mothers of the plaza, their efforts would have made no difference. Yet they were noticed. They were seen and heard, talked about throughout the world. Their numbers swelled, and similar groups sprang up in other countries. So some need to gather, and some need to hear, and some need to retell the stories of justice and freedom, for in the simple act of listening and taking in the story that another weaves, we can foment revolutions.
In 2016, the day after Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop, I went to work at the hospital. There I listened to two African American patients who were scared and grieving, and to an African American staff person. After the murder of George Floyd, more than one patient shared her pain with me. By witnessing to the hurt, fear, and rage, by holding their story as truth and listening without defensiveness or argument, I could at least give them some dignity. In this way, they felt, if not healed, at least known and cared about.
Sometimes witnessing the truth of a story is all we can do. That’s what the Buddhist monk, Claude Anshin Thomas, discovered when he visited a site in Germany where Jews were deported to concentration camps. The place held such a powerful sense of evil, he felt stymied. In his book, At Hell’s Gate, he explained that, not knowing “what else to do,” he “lit incense, did prostrations, and offered prayers of healing for the ghosts both in and out of this square.” He heard the voices of the past and honored their stories. 
Witnessing as Love
Listening to stories can’t be all we do, of course. Even the mothers in Argentina agitated and advocated when they weren’t walking in a circle around the plaza. Yet, without the witness, everything else is superficial. Unless we listen deeply and fully, we may manage to change a law here or there, but hearts will continue on as broken as always, and the systems of justice we create will quickly fall apart.
The witness that matters is the witness that heals. For us to heal, as one of the Recovery Church’s members pointed out not long after Floyd’s death, “we need one another.” Without someone to stand as witness to our stories, healing is not possible.
But not any kind of witness will do. The witnessing must be one that truly hears, deeply sees, fully knows the truth that lies in our hearts. When someone really listens to us, our inner life can be transformed.
Such witnessing is a kind of love. As another member said, when we are witnessed to, it is like “being in the palm of someone’s caring.” Our cup of joy spills over.
Not that we won’t ever feel raw and empty again. As the Rev. Audrey de Coursey wrote in response to my column about the limits of love, “Love doesn’t promise we won’t ever be hurt, but it does help us cope and heal.” Through such love, a love born of the witness we offer one another, she suggested, we can learn to trust ourselves and trust the world. We might even learn to believe in kindness. Witnessing brings us all manner of blessings.
But the witnessing that heals is a spiritual one. The healing witness lies in stillness. It sees with an inner eye, cradles the words and emotions that arise as the other speaks, and treats the story heard as sacred.
Sacredness has to do with religion, with the worship of a god or goddess. That which is sacred is worthy of respect, venerated, blessed. Sacred objects or events are mysterious and inspire awe. How can listening be like that?
Sacred listening is that which is set aside, marked by a moment, a touch, a quiet that settles over the participants. As a chaplain, I find there are moments when the sacred descends upon me and the patient, and the quality of the visit shifts. The patient is ready to say what has been waiting to be said, and that mysterious force of love allows my presence to expand, become still, to wait. When the words flow from the person in front of me, I can treat them with a gentle reverence. I can pay attention with my entire being. This is the witnessing that heals. This is the deep listening.
We must be careful, though, for if we enter into a relationship grounded in the importance of witness at a time when we are preoccupied or angry or empty inside, we can do more harm than good. As a colleague reminded us in a Sunday circle some weeks ago, if we lose our focus, minimize the other’s suffering, seek facts instead of truth, we can re-traumatize the speaker. We make things worse.
So it’s important to maintain a sense of presence. How do we do that?
Barriers to Witnessing
Perhaps, as one member of our group suggested, not all of us can. He wondered if there might not be people who lack the “depth” to fully bear witness, who don’t have the necessary substance to hold another’s story in their hearts.
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer wondered why it was so uncomfortable for us as a nation to “hold tension” after the Twin Towers fell.  Why could we not sit in the silence of witnessing, listen to our pain and suffering, and respond from the depth of our hearts rather than from our fear and anger?
He suggested it was because we “want to win.”  Unable to tolerate appearing weak or wimpy, we march forward decisively. We call for soldiers and officers of the law and judges to do something. Uncertainty and an openness to the flow of experience frighten us. To stand in the sacred stillness of witnessing seems passive, and we are an active nation. Listening is not our strength.
But even those who are wounded and frightened can learn to witness. We can learn to be at peace with our anxiety. How?
Learning to Listen
One way to do this is to learn to sit. No matter what turmoil distracts us, we sit. We don’t look for answers, and we don’t strive to do anything. Maybe we light incense and pray, but mostly we just sit. And in the sitting, we pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, sensations. We notice without judgment and without response. By sitting, we learn to witness to ourselves, and we learn to live with what we see within.
If we have done this long enough, then, when we witness to others, we will know what to do when our inner fears or resentments arise, when we judge, when we long for a particular outcome. If we have learned to sit, we will know that our thoughts are just thoughts and our feelings are just feelings. They are not facts or truth. Then, we will be able to let them go and focus on the person in front of us.
This does not happen quickly. It takes years to learn to sit in this way. Nor is sitting the only tool we can use to reach this place of stillness within ourselves. We can pray. We can cultivate an awareness of what lies before us, which is itself a kind of witness. For those of us who appreciate the American values of strength and courage, we can steel ourselves to stand bravely in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap,” that place of uncertainty and sadness that has no answers, only questions. 
It is not easy to witness. How wonderful it would be if every time we witnessed, it would be a sacred thing, but that won’t happen. In the end, we must do our best, and sometimes someone will be offended or triggered. So we make what amends are possible, and we reconcile when we can, and we move on when we must, and we strive to do better next time. If we avoid witnessing because we might harm someone by doing it wrong, then we will help no one.
Sharing Our Story
Some years after the trial where I gave testimony that helped convict a murderer, I was working as a chaplain when I met the brother of the man who died. I didn’t recognize him, didn’t connect the names. This patient, having used alcohol to dull his pain, had come to me to figure out how to grieve. My job was to witness to his truth. So that is what I did.
As I listened to his story, though, I came to realize who he was and how he and I were connected. For a second, I touched the part of his story that belonged to me, and I had to pull myself back to the present so I could sustain my witness of him, not of myself. While he shared, he asked questions about mourning, about recovery, and about loss. Together, we explored his resentment and rage. He tried to make sense of the complicated man his brother was and of the brutality of his fate. Meaning, purpose, forgiveness, revenge, they were all there in the tale he wove. My witness was mostly mute, but no less important for that.
The next day, after reflection and consultation, I witnessed for him my story. I told him who I was, this person who was first to see his brother when his brother wasn’t alive anymore. The patient asked questions; I did my best to answer them. In so doing, I became that kind of witness who speaks, who tells of memories and images, ideas and impressions. I did my best to honor the passing of a life.
All Kinds of Witnessing Are Sacred
Yet as I spoke, I also watched and listened. I noticed that as I shared my story, something within the patient shifted. It seemed that, though he had found some healing the day before by telling his own tale, in hearing mine, he healed further. Questions he hadn’t realized he had were answered. A wound he couldn’t name was touched and soothed. Hearing my story, he came to understand his own in a new way. My words didn’t make the brother’s death right or acceptable, but they made it possible for the surviving sibling to learn to live.
There are so many ways to witness. We can witness in silence or in speech, in dance or in song, from a distance or up close, in protest and in stillness. What makes witnessing so important, no matter what kind of witness we’re talking about, is the sacred power it has to heal.
No Limit to Love
Yes, witnessing can cause harm, as do the statues of Confederate heroes that symbolize a history that traumatizes so many. We can also wound through inattention or ignorance. We are so imperfect.
So we do the best we can, and some days, the sacred rises up to meet us, and some days, our capacity to be present in the face of fear and sadness makes love visible. Our suffering can get in the way of our listening, but suffering can also transform. If we can witness to ourselves, if we can fully accept the comings and goings of our joys and our sorrows, our suffering will transform.
As Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal, “Everything in life that we really accept undergoes a change. So suffering must become Love.”  And if, as she also wrote, there is no limit to our suffering, then, as one of our members commented, “there is no limit to love.” When we are present to one another, when we honor the sacred within one another, when we witness to all that is before us, then love will be made visible. This is how we heal one another. This is how we heal our world.
In faith and fondness,
- See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/28/mothers-plaza-de-mayo-argentina-anniversary or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothers_of_the_Plaza_de_Mayo#Activism_and_reaction.
- Thomas, Claude Anshin, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, Boston: Shmbhala, 2004, 130-1.
- Palmer, Parker, A Hidden Wholeness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, Chapter 10.
- Mansfield, Katherine, The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927, 163.
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
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