What does it mean to “bear witness” ?
“Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this time of the COVID pandemic we are faced with the fear and uncertainty of what is and what will be. Many have used this as a call to action. At Columbia-Presbyterian we have seen many people finding a way to contribute outside of their comfort zone. We have seen great tragedy with illness and death, but we have seen greatness and heroes have shown themselves. The toll of this crisis goes beyond those directly infected, and the uncertainty of what is to come fuels angst. It may be difficult to sit quietly in the fear and panic of this moment, but it can be that precise practice that allows a person to fully digest all of the emotions that arise during stress. With a light shining on the difficulties it is possible to recognize each and deal with our individual needs.
With the recognition and management of individual emotions we can expand the idea to larger groups. In the book, The Dude and the Zen Master, by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, the concept of individuals and society at large having the ability to conceptually hold the suffering of others is expanded in reference to the holocaust. What does it mean to hold something? Not in an empirically tangible sense, but in the abstract or metaphysical space. Glassman has taken people on pilgrimage to the remains of holocaust camps and memorials as a means to bear witness. He has asked his students to spend time amongst the homeless, reliant on charity. In this way people are subjected to the observation of the suffering of others. It is not just seeing that matters, it is the ability to then recognize the feelings and thoughts that emerge, and giving each a moment. During this practice anger, resentment, & other negative emotions may arise. The object is to understand that these emotions have a place, but that if we can meet each with kindness and understanding, the capacity for compassion might grow.
As we look around at the world we see bluer skies than we have seen in a long time. It seems that all of nature is working to restore during this global slowdown. A pause can be so unnatural to us with the lifestyles to which we have subscribed. There is always something to do. Someone to care for. A task left unfinished. When we pause to take inventory we can attend to that which is necessary and eliminate distractions. By focusing our energy on that which is really important to us, within our reach, we can do the things that really matter. We all have been guilty of, and see in others, the reach toward grand ideas and sensational plots. In this moment it is more important than ever to stay within ourselves and recognize individual limitations to push that which is available so that we can really make a difference.
“Nature does not hurry, yet all things are accomplished,” Lao Tzu.
So how can we cultivate empathy now? I think it starts with finding compassion for ourselves. How many times have you been asked, “how are you doing?” Only to respond, “fine.” We are social animals and thrive in networks of support from one another. In order to recognize the parts of ourselves that need nurturing we have to pause. Our world is currently in a great pause and we are starting to move again in slow motion towards the life we were living before the pandemic started. Before we start running again, or if we are recovering from running into the “fire” that COVID presented us all with, we have an opportunity to look within – but only if we stop for a moment. In stopping and taking account of what is within ourselves we may find the wounds that we are so good at working around. These insults to our psyche can be assets in the way a callous can help an athlete. If ignored though, they might also lead to complications.
In the interview linked below Allan Lokos, an opera singer, volunteer chaplain, plane crash survivor, and founder of the Community Meditation Center in Manhattan, and I discuss the current landscape. He offers insight as to ways in which we can slow down, provide self-care, and rejuvenate in order to bring our most authentic selves forward.
The example of bearing witness to the holocaust may have some transcendence to tragedies such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, September 11, or what we are experiencing right now. Psychologists and religious leaders alike agree that large scale crises can lead to a collective post-traumatic stress syndrome. That being said it is only in starting with one’s self on an individual level that we can cultivate the compassion necessary to remain empathetic to others, and to provide the unencumbered version of ourselves forward. Reach out to check on one another. If you are suffering, do not suffer alone. Pick up the phone, connect with a friend, colleague, or professional trained to manage depression and anxiety.