Fresh Eyes: The difficulty and joy of bearing witness

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Lynn Crothers bio pic copy 2by Lynn Crothers

In one room of Winston-Salem’s Williams Adult Day Center, people relaxed into comfortable chairs with their headphones on, eyes closed peacefully or opened in delight. In another, they crowded around a piano to sing. One woman told me her husband, diagnosed with an uncommon form of Alzheimer’s, had simply stopped talking. Nearby, another woman guided her husband gently to the middle of the room to dance.

Dedicated to providing a caring, safe environment for adults with memory loss, the day center welcomed outsiders last week to bear witness to its successful music therapy program, Music and Memory, in action.

To bear witness is defined as “to be evidence of.” I had never considered this phrase until a good friend thanked me for bearing witness to his life. Until that moment, I had failed to find a way to describe the gift those closest to me had given, the fortifying power of it: Their presence. They had moved through life with me, watching how I moved through it as well.

In a world filled with distraction, bearing witness is no easy task. In moments flooded with real and necessary suffering, it can feel like a punch in the gut, an unbearable weight. Watching these two women in the midst of a situation that demanded unthinkable change, I considered how many times life had necessitated my full and honest presence, and how often I had run in the opposite direction.

“Listening is an art, and many people do not have the capacity for it, especially in the case of listening to the suffering of others,” Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh said in a 1991 talk. “One reason for that is that in the listeners themselves, there is also much pain.”

Earlier this year, my sister took a beginner’s improv class in Chapel Hill. One week, her teacher assigned “mindful listening” as homework: each time someone spoke to you, you were to pause and silently repeat what had been said back to yourself before responding.

Intrigued, I practiced this on the sly with friends and strangers, believing myself to already be a generous, solid conversationalist. Despite being simple in theory, mindful listening proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. I discovered I cut people off when I got excited, interrupted their train of thought with my own, and sought always to offer an answer, even when one seemed not to exist. Thinking myself to be a master, I found I was just a beginner.

This is bearing witness: Mindful, compassionate listening and seeing, inhabiting moments fully, with no agenda. In Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva endowed with the art of listening, his name translated literally as “the one who listens to the pain of the world.”

A day after the event at the day center, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, WFDD public radio and Wake Forest University’s Pro Humanitate Institute hosted Feeding Change: An Interactive Community Conversation on Hunger. More than 160 people attended, propelled by a desire to alleviate hunger in the Triad.

To bear witness could also be defined as “the starting point of change.”

There is much in our community that demands witness — poverty, illness, isolation, injustice. If you’re not sure where to start, start here: Get quiet for a moment, sit still.

How do you feel? How does it feel to be you?

Know thyself, as Socrates instructed. Bear witness to your own struggles and you’ll find that bearing witness to the struggles of others is a much less frightening thing. Step into the realm of another and sit there with an open heart.

“Each of us has an Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva inside waiting to grow,” Hanh told his audience. And each day, we can choose to move closer to this collective destiny — by paying attention, by caring.

Locking eyes with her husband across the room, the woman continued. He loves the Drifters, Four Tops and Neil Diamond, she said, grinning.

You know, he stopped talking — until he started listening. Now he sings.

Lynn Crothers is a writer living in Winston-Salem.