Bearing Witness

English: The Witness Cairn The Witness Cairn.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about surviving these past weeks. The blind rage I have felt for victims who haven’t survived, the incredible respect I have for those that survive and enter into healing – they have occupied my mind, my heart.

And though I have never been raped or attacked, though I can’t begin to understand that deep agony of body and soul – I have learned one thing. When we bear witness to the stories of those who have experienced the wounds of rape and violence, we help in the healing process.

Conversely, when we dismiss them, we become part of the attack, part of the abuse.

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, not in facts.

Bearing witness means that we are showing by our existence that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost”. To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering in, and in our entering offering hope and healing.

Bearing witness is a good phrase.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Who has walked beside you as a witness to your stories, so that you can move forward with purpose and hope?

Blogger’s note: Might I suggest this excellent op-ed piece from the NY Times: After Being Raped, I Was Wounded – My Honor Wasn’t

20 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. Strange those two things have been on my mind recenly, rape and bearing witness but not linked together.
    The rape is of the medical student in New Delhi, who was not only raped but such terrible things were done to her that she did not survive. I tried to avoid learning the whole story because i cannot handle it and too much violence has been happening recently which has been so heart breaking, like that killing of little school kids.
    My daughter though was obviously traumatized as she had read the whole story and was following it and I realized she needed to talk about it. When i heard it, I think I felt my heart stop, the pain was so great, how any human could do that to another? I will never be able to understand it. It was one of the most terrible things I have ever heard of. Besides the horrendous torture she was put through, her family are left behind to suffer the memories every day of their lives.I think it left mental scars on my whole country. I feel the pain rush up even as I type this. Poor poor girl.

    It is something I hope none of us will ever have to be witness to again in anyway.

    About bearing witness, i have a strange face, it seems to encourage confidences and I find strangers coming to me and telling me their story even rest room attendants. it is strange i carry so many stories inside. People are like the sea, the surface never gives a clue of what lies under it. I have not really found a witness for mine though. Not really not someone who would say i understand, or offer me the solution or the validation i need.

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    1. This is another time that I long to sit with you and drink hot tea and talk. Hearing that you’ve not found a witness for your stories makes me feel profoundly sad. Especially as you are one who is ‘hearer of stories’. It’s those who listen that often can’t find someone to listen to them. Love you Pari.

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    2. Along with that I had been wondering what your daughters reactions were. Having just been to India and I’m sure feeling empathy and deep sadness. I think you’re right about the mental scars.

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      1. @ Pari. You must have a beautiful spirit and demeaner that shines through your face and attracts others to you. And a large heart to listen and “bear witness” to so many others’ stories. I am lifting up a prayer that God will send you a caring friend to bear witness to your story.

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  2. I have done the same thing with prayer – minimized it’s power as opposed to recognizing it for the powerful tool it is in the act of bearing witness. Thanks for this reminder – and you, my friend, are a model of bearing witness!

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  3. Very touching post. thank you.
    Today I bear witness to my trauma and the trauma of many other people who suffer in silence. We are slowly learning that we need to break free from the culture of silence and self shame. Instead we need to bear witness and shame the culprits.

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  4. Thank you for your words today. As a survivor of rape, I can’t begin to express how thankful I am for those who have listened, who have prayed, and who have walked through the healing process with me. Without their willingness to “bear witness” to my story and my pain, I wouldn’t be where I am in the healing process.

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    1. I am so grateful that you commented. I took a look at your site – how much the words “moments your life was changed” must resonate. You are so brave. Thank you for your honesty and being willing to live out a story of healing.

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  5. You speak powerful truths friend! I remember all those I encountered as I looked for a safe person to disclose my husbands abusive treatment to, and how many pastors, councilors, family members and friends I approached. At first I would share a very small piece of the story to test their reactions. The result was I experienced more abuse, condemnation and judgement such as: “Go back and submit to your husband”, “How can you work on your problems if you leave him?” , ” He was given to you by God to be a thorn in your side, remember when you are weak, God is strong” “Why would you stay with him? You must like that kind of treatment”

    I stopped asking for help because it was so painful, almost more painful then the physical blows I received.Until one evening I had to literally run for my life with the clothes on my back. It wasn’t until many years later that the Lord began to draw a group of women together who could find no help within their faith communities. They sat with each other and listened. They were just present for each other, and they listened to each others stories. We found out we were not alone, and as we met, we found healing, encouragement, unconditional love and surprisingly a mission. God continued to bring us women just like us, who could find no safe place or safe persons, and our group became a safe space for God to do miracles!

    That group has now become a full blown reproducing ministry and 1000s of lives have been impacted as we simply share our presence, our stories and our God with one another. Today I can say to all those who caused more pain with their advice, forgive them father, they know not what they do.

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    1. I am struck by so many things in this comment. Your courage, your tenacity, your willingness to tell your story, walk beside others, never want others to go through this alone. You are a product of Grace upon Grace. Thank you for sharing – not only for my sake but for other readers who will undoubtedly benefit from your honesty. I’m honored to hear this story.

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  6. Oh, Marilyn, I so agree . . . when we bear witness as you described, we DO support healing. Even when we feel the most helpless, even when we can’t remove the scars, even when we can’t right the wrong . . . our active listening — demonstrating that we are moved, responding with caring words — may be soothing balm to the one in pain, And finally, I’ve often said when I felt helpless, “All I can do is pray.” But now I try to say instead, “I will pray.” for that prayer may be among the most powerful of my intents to bear witness.

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