Bearing Witness

Feb 18, 2016

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.
(Elie Wiesel)

Poet and activist Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” In small quotidian affairs as well as in the context of large world events, bearing witness to the suffering of others matters tremendously. The fact of being seen with empathy, especially in light of persecution or distress, provides the event an objective meaning. Bearing witness makes it real.

Recently waiting at a counter of a Manhattan gym, I observed an impatient middle-aged female customer berate a young male employee with a litany of complaints. The young man who worked for the gym was cordial and exact in his answers to the rude and aggressive barrage of questions and demands. The ill-mannered woman finally turned on her heels and stormed out of the building.  A few minutes later I expressed sympathy to the young man for what had happened. “What was her problem?” I asked him.  A look of enormous relief came over the young man’s face. “I am so glad that you saw that!” he exclaimed. “And thank you for saying it now so that my manager can hear you,” he added.

We are all potentially witnesses to one another. We bear witness daily and not only in reaction to traumatic events. Our presence and attention allows the perceived to feel the kind of empathy and support that can alleviate their emotional load by simply sharing it with us. There is no substitute for full, real presence. Other forms of staying connected are only approximations. Bearing witness is a powerful tool and an action in the world that has consequence. Sharing ourselves with others opens up a space where once there was none.

Perhaps it is possible to compare this shared awareness and empathy to an audience’s relationship to traumatic events portrayed upon a stage in the theater. Being part of a theater audience requires far more than simply being in attendance as a passive observer. The spectator cultivates a special relationship to the event by being willing to be with the suffering of someone but at the same to time let it be, not try to fix, change or make things different despite the emotions generated by watching. In the theater, the audience sees in order to experience, interpret and understand. Aristotle first referred to this mutuality as catharsis, or, the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from strong or repressed emotions.

Being part of an audience in the theater requires a similar responsibility to bearing witness to a rite of passage such as birth, death, puberty or marriage. At a wedding I know that my job is to provide the kind of presence through consciousness and cognizance that can make the marriage real. The two living souls then bear the consequent life-long responsibility of what we have witnessed.

Bearing witness is not only a personal action in everyday life but can be conscious collective action on a global scale. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Zen Peacemakers, the Sierra Club, the Peace Corps, Human Rights Watch and countless NGOs exist to bear witness to suffering, injustice and oppression around the world. Roshi Bernie Glassman who founded Zen Peacemakers cites the three tenets of his organization: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Loving Action.  He wrote, “When we bear witness, when we become the situation – the right action arises by itself.  We don’t have to worry about what we do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time.  Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness.”

Among the Zulu and Xhosa tribes in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to our “hello,” is Sawu bona, which literally means, “I see you.”  The reply is typically Sikhona, or “I am here.”  According to writer and systems scientist Peter Senge, the order of this exchange is key. Until you see me, I do not exist. You bring me into existence in seeing me. Senge invokes Desmond Tutu’s use of the word Ubuntu to express the spirit of Africa.  In Xosa, Ubuntu means “People are people through other people.”  In Zulu it means, “One is a person through others.”

And yet in the context of our current consumerist environment where relationships are increasingly mediated by ever-shrinking screens, we are generally not encouraged to acknowledge the existence of other people in the flesh. Advertising and capitalist ethics mean to stimulate personal desire and suggest to us constantly that our own cravings are all that matters. As a consumer separated from others by a mediated environment, I am urged to function as though I am the only person that exists. But according to the meaning behind Ubuntu, when I neglect my neighbor, I neglect myself. The disrespect of inattention is profound and can be devastating to others. To acknowledge the presence of others and to recognize their needs matters tremendously to the wellbeing of social systems everywhere.

The root meaning of the word witness implies to bear in mind, to be careful, to remember. In legal terms a witness is someone who has knowledge of something by recollection or experience and who can tell about it accurately. Observation is not the same as witnessing, which in turn is not the same as bearing witness. Observation is the initial step and the platform from which one can become a witness. To bear witness requires the witness to also develop a point of view in relation to what one has seen.

The steps from seeing to witnessing to bearing witness travel from inaction to conscious action. First we see others. Seeing does not require the responsibility of consciousness. In order to shift from seeing to witnessing, we must attempt connection, understanding and interpretation. Finally, to bear witness requires the courage to show up fully and take responsibility for one’s own anxiety and to “be with” fully and compassionately. To bear witness asks for what ministers, therapists and peacemakers call a “non-anxious presence.”

One of the least understood responsibilities of the artist is to bear witness, to give language to what would otherwise remain unseen or unrecognized.  We are charged with nothing less than making the invisible visible, bringing empathy and genuine interest to the plight of others. We bear witness to one another through writing, through visual art, through verbal sharing and through, enactment, through performance.  The word theater is derived from the Greek theatron. Thea means “eyes” and tron, “place.”  The theater is “a place of seeing.” In the theater we practice and develop the art of witnessing.  

I have seen, I have heard, I have touched, I have felt, I have been present.
(Jacques Derrida)

My experience of Marina Abramovic’s 2010 work The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern art in New York City provided one of the most powerful examples of audience-as-witness in the context of performance that I have ever encountered. Was Abramovic bearing witness to me sitting across from her or was I, sitting across from her, bearing witness to Abramovic’s vigil? Or, alternatively, was the large group gathered around us bearing witness to our encounter? That rapture in the experience of The Artist is Present remains present in my memory to this day.