Bearing witness — what it is, what it isn’t


I’m a history nerd. I love the stuff.

This is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I had the dizzying experience of being part of an online re-enactment. (I know, it sounds crazy, but it worked!)

People got so caught up in the re-enactment that there was real heartache over the screams of the doomed and the bitter anguish over lives we couldn’t save, and watching the lights go out one by one. The idea of “bearing witness” was tossed around, but without form, as it often is. I thought it needed clarifying.

Therefore, I wrote the following, in the aftermath. I didn’t trivialize the pain, because who knows what horrors others will face in their lives afterwards. (I can’t even imagine what I’ve been through so far, let alone guess what’s next, and I’m pretty sure I was there.) So, I treated the heartache as perfectly valid — chances are, sooner or later it will be, and we can all use a little clarity at those times.

What I wrote resonated so strongly with so many different people that I thought I should put it here, too. (All these posts are printable, shareable, and linkable, so don’t be shy about sharing.) Hope it helps.

A word to those new to mortality in action…

I was a nurse, starting in HIV care 27 years ago, then Emergency/Casualty, then home care. Then I lost 9 loved ones in 18 months. Then I developed a subtly brutal disease that destroys the body from the inside out, for which the treatments are occasionally fatal.

I have watched a lot of people die.
(pausing for breath, and for the color to come back into the world)
[Okay, moving on.]

There are two ways to cope. One is to shut down and depersonalize, which is increasingly common. As a temporary measure, it’s fine — gives you time to get it together. The humane thing to do, though, is move on from there.

Another is to look closely at where your skin ends and another’s begins, and let them have their experience while you notice that it sucks for them — and you keep breathing.

This is what is meant by bearing witness.

Separating Self from Other allows us to be present while another faces the worst moments of their life.

Knowing that it’s not you dying, or writhing, or what have you, frees you up to stand outside that hell and throw the glowing line of awareness to the one inside it.

That is bearing witness.

I won’t discuss my illness here (check out livinganway.com if you want to see the sunny side; rsds.org if you don’t) but I often wind up in an unbearable state of being. I’m an old hand at looking back at life from the slopes of Hell.

While (keep this in mind) there is nothing anyone can do about my being in an unbearable state, there is only one thing that reminds me there is something beyond it, and all I have to do is get there.

That one thing is a loving look, or kind word, or one of my partner’s frankly feeble acknowledgements of recognizing that my body might as well be burning alive. It’s so small from the outside — but it lights up my world.

It’s a thread of golden light that holds me to life. Just a thread of golden light. But it’s enough.

Bearing witness is not about changing the outcome.

Bearing witness is simply the only possible redemption of these terrible moments.

Redemption is not about undoing anything. It does not change the outward reality.

It changes the unbearable inward blackness just enough that the person who is looking back at you from the slopes of Hell, can find the extraordinary inward strength to keep going until it’s over — one way or another.

You who are well and safe have no idea how important that is, but please, let me assure you that it’s a gift beyond reckoning to do that for another.

Bearing witness to those screams, those unspeakably harrowing last moments — whatever they are — you can’t see their faces change, because their reality is just as bleak right now — but, inside them, they found their steel; they found their peace.

For all those on the Titanic and all those who look back from the slopes of any other Hell, let me say, thank you. You make all the difference.

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