Bearing Witness

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The idea of “bearing witness” has been rattling around in me for some time. What does it mean? Bearing witness prioritizes the experience of the person or group over the questions the listener might have. To bear witness is to see, hear, know and remember what has happened.

As a marriage and family therapist, I witness the telling of personal narratives all the time. However, in that exchange, the roles are clear and I’ve received training to help me sit with individuals, couples and families as they reveal the intimate details of their lives. I know what to do. Everyday life is not necessarily measured in 60-minute segments and so bearing
witness is tricky.

I want you to consider how we can each see and hear what is happening around us so that our attention is actually a catalyst for change. Notice that I said our attention—not our great suggestions, not our retelling of our own similar experience, not our disbelief. Our attention can create space for meaningful change in the life of the storyteller: let our presence in the lives of others create moments for the glory of God to show up.

To open any media feed right now is to be overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of stories about the lived experience of individuals and communities on the local and global scenes. Given the sheer number of reports, tweets, blogs and the like, we can find ourselves unmoved, uninterested, immobilized or activated in seconds. If we also consider the events of our personal and professional lives and the people with whom we interact on a daily basis, we have quite a cacophony of voices clamouring for our attention.

Consider a New Testament example. In John 9 the disciples encounter a man born blind and ask Jesus: “Who sinned to cause this man to be blind? Was it him, or his parents?” Perhaps they were trying to out-Jesus Jesus, having seen him get to the core of the matter with others he had encountered. However, Jesus was focused on an entirely different agenda. His position of openness allowed him to step back from a narrow focus and declare that blindness was not the issue at hand but rather, in that particular moment, the opportunity for the glory of God to be on display in that man’s life. To bear witness is to be open.

Sharing our story is a delicate business. While we might be somewhat ambivalent about what to share and how to share, we may also be concerned about if the listener will actually listen. The response of the listener, whether the first or one of many, often tells us how much of our story we can actually and safely share.

When we bear witness to the lived experience of another and agree to connect, it seems to me that we make space for core human emotions to be expressed. These core emotions are often listed as fear, joy, happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and disgust. Regardless of the details of the story, we may find ourselves resonating deeply with the crush of fear, the wellspring of joy, the hum of sadness, and the roar of anger. Now we understand something of the impact of the story on the teller because we’ve heard the stirring of the human heart, whether that heart sits across from us or is crying out from a location somewhere else in the world.

We are encouraged to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. We are told to bear one another’s burdens. We are asked to watch our expression of anger. These are actions that arise from bearing witness. The time for deciphering, fact-finding, decision-making will come in due course because there is a time for everything under the sun.

What impact might it have on the billions of narratives that could be shared if the first encounter was met with an openness of heart which welcomed the emotions that shape the story? What change could we unleash in the world if we could make space for the storyteller to speak freely about their experience of joy, hope, disappointment, shock, etc., without having to carefully curate the story for the listener? What if the act of telling the story as it is known was a good enough reason to listen carefully?

We live in a time where there is a clamour for attention, but focus is fleeting. There are stories from the distant and recent past that are surfacing, and attending to those who have a share in those events will tell us something about the human condition. May we replicate the act of radical hospitality that the Lord gave each of us by showing up in those moments where someone needs a witness to the fear, joy, sadness, anger, surprise and/or disgust that has influenced their life. Let us give the gift of presence. Things change when the Lord shows up.

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About Sharon Ramsay

Sharon Ramsay, MDiv, RP, RMFT, is a therapist. This is excerpted from a speech she gave at Q Commons earlier this year.