Monday, November 26, 2007


Observer. Spectator. Cheerleader.

What does it mean to be a witness?

The holiday season is the time to spend with family, and seeing my parents made me think about witnessing--witnessing life. Parents are first-hand witnesses to their children. They were there at the beginning--they held us, and nursed us and literally and figuratively carried us until we could walk on our own two feet. Parents are the most open to entertaining the minutia of our lives. Who else might care that your childhood action figure's head accidentally popped off but your mother?

As our awareness develops and our focus moves from self-centeredness to empathy, we find that we observe our parents just as much as they observe us. We are more historically entwined with our parents than with any other relationship in our lives, and as much as they might drive us crazy or amuse us, we are indelibly linked to them, and their pain and their joy is ours.

As we grow older, our lives are less immediately connected, and perhaps if geography stands in the way, we cease to intimately know each other as we are now, instead relying upon memories and prior experience as our markers for understanding one another. But the bond is still there, and it's fraught with fear and tension and most of all, love, in whatever form each of us knows how to give.

And as our parents age while we're still in our relative youth, we begin to witness certain apects of their decline. In my case, I have a chronically ill parent and I can see how my mother struggles to adapt to her changing life, and it breaks my heart. I want so much to be this fountain of compassion, and yet I find myself hard pressed to keep my heart open and express tenderness because I am afraid of the tidal wave of pain that I know is under the surface of all of our hearts. I find myself sometimes becoming most emotionally detached at those moments when I should be most present. It's hard to love. Love is a kind of loss that can turn prickly and hard. But, it is also healing. Thankfully, I can admit to any faults and ask for forgiveness, and best of all, I know my parents will grant it.

As a witness, we are paradoxically

a part of

apart from

We are a part of our parents, yet apart from them at the same time. We also occupy space in other people's lives that is tangential and paradoxically central. There is a fine line between being a witness and becoming an interloper (and sometimes we do both), but for the most part, as adults, we are witnesses to our friends' experiences. We watch from a short distance as our friend, in only three months time, applies for and gets into a world-class grad school for her MBA. We see a lesbian couple wed using honored traditions from their respective religions. We see babies being born and share in the agony of an illness and their (mercifully) brief stay in the hospital. We see yet another reach out across the years to get back in touch with her estranged father. These are momentous events, yet also just life.

We are witnesses to ourselves. We can see our own growth and change if we choose to. We can think about it, but if we record it in journals, or write about it, we can make our own personal witnessing something that someone else can witness too. (And let us hope what we share is not shared entirely out of narcissism--I only mention this because it seems like such a danger that culturally everyone wants to be famous these days.)

Taking on the role of witness is an outward view that exposes us to potential hurt and the chafing of our hearts, but also opens a door to the joy and triumphs of the experiences of those around us. We live vicariously through each other all the time, and we can strive to be beacons of encouragement and hope for those we love.

What does it meant to be a witness? It means opening our hearts. It means being involved.

Being a witness means you're not alone even as you stand on the sidelines.

You are not alone.


vivzan said...

That's really beautiful, moving and so touching. Gosh. That's about all I'm able to say right now.

Rational Answers said...

What a lyrical, provocative and moving insight you provide into a profound (if done right) dynamic: bearing witness to life. As you point out, this is an especially affecting activity when done in the context of our loved ones.

Witnessing my mother sink inexorably into stroke-induced dementia that ended in her death last year allows me to relate to some of your experiences. I can imagine some people not fully understanding when you say: "I find myself sometimes becoming most emotionally detached at those moments when I should be most present. It's hard to love. Love is a kind of loss that can turn prickly and hard." This becomes completely comprehensible once you've had love bind you to someone who is suffering grievously and will probably never fully recover. In the face of this abyss of despair, most of us lose any illusions we may have harbored of possessing limitless emotional strength. If we manage to avoid going over the edge, we are likely to either flee with nary a backward glance or maintain our engagement from a discrete distance.

So don’t be too hard on yourself for your detachment. It could be argued that your love for your mother would not allow you to abandon her and so you pulled back far enough to still be there for her through her suffering without being overwhelmed by it. As a result, you could be there as the rational human being that she probably needed most at the time.