Bearing Witness – Refusing to Turn Away

A Beggar

Italian painter Gaspare Traversi (1732-1769) Mendiant accroupi or A Beggar – Courtesy of the Narbonne art museum.

I found this painting of a beggar at the blog site of an artist that I admire. She found it on a rainy day in Narbonne, France where she’s traveling, and wrote:

It is the emotion and compositional strength of this image as well as pure skill in foreshortening that had me coming back to this painting several times. Every centimeter of this canvas is in full use and allows you no room to shrink from the image. The beggar has seen us. We must respond in some way and whatever that way is he and the world will know. It is our human condition we are facing in this painting. (Terrill Welch – Creative Potager)

It struck me how often we are tempted to turn away from images, people, situations, that seems too horrible, too hopeless, that makes us feel too helpless to even think about it, let alone do something ourselves to help. Like extreme poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction, rape, human trafficking, mass murder, mental illness . . . the list goes on.

It’s human nature to do so, to turn away from the ugly faces that our human condition sometimes shows us. To pretend it’s not there, or doesn’t affect us, or isn’t us, or won’t be us, or someone we care about, some day.

But it’s important to resist that urge to turn away, even if we have no way to address it. It has to do with what I’ve come to think as “bearing witness.” It has to do with, not only, bearing witness to an atrocity that should not be forgotten nor repeated, as the holocaust survivors have done, as we’ve come to regard the towers falling on 9/11.

It also has to do with simply being there for another human being in pain, “bearing” that pain with them, in that we acknowledge it and in whatever small way we can show them they are not alone. That we stand with them, if only in spirit, if only in refusing to turn away, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that they don’t matter.

I’ve found myself returning to this motif in my writing again and again: the need to look, to not turn away, and the importance to bear witness to another’s pain and suffering.

I wrote about this on another blog site in a post called “The Deer’s Scream – Beauty and brutality in the Backyard and the Hills of Vietnam.” I wrote:

“I don’t know why I’m writing this. Perhaps just to bear witness to the beauty and brutality rolled into one all around us everywhere. We can’t separate it out. We have to swallow it whole. There’s no other way.”

I wrote about it in “13 Ways to Look at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After” about care for my mother, a difficult woman, during the last few months of her life when she was dying of cancer. It begins this way:

She streaks past me naked in the dark hall. Light from the bathroom flashes upon her face, her thin shoulders, her sharp knees. Her head turns toward me, her dark eyes angry stabs. As if daring me to see her, stop her, help her. 

And I’m writing about it now, on this blog site, my determination not to look away from, but to bear witness to the suffering caused by drug addiction. To not turn away from my son’s suffering, or mine, or from my own culpability.

I see so many other bloggers doing the same thing: facing down a painful past or something that haunts them still, or is hurting a loved one, or destroying a community.

I love how Kaze Gadway in her blog bears witness to the struggles of the homeless in her community.

I love how Art Mowle in Drinking for a Lifetime bears witness to his own struggle to overcome addiction and create a new life.

And there are so many other writers and artists and activists who are doing the same thing. Who are refusing to turn away, and instead bearing witness to the pain they see and experience when encountering the dark side of the human condition. As this artist was doing when he painted “The Beggar” so long ago.

I’m touched by all the readers who have left comments on the blog posts I’ve written here, who have responded to my struggles, and shared theirs. Sometimes it’s all we can do to help another. Bear witness. And sometimes it’s all that’s needed.

Somehow I feel blessed by the artist’s painting on this page. His refusing to turn away, to reveal the humanity he saw in the face of suffering, reveals his own humanity, and challenges us to do the same.

 

To My Son, Age Six: Storm Rider

Pago Pago6I wrote this poem long ago, and never shared it with anyone until today.

Patterned Dark and Light: To My Son, Age Six

You’re such a lovely boy, so structured like
a flower: skin so white and bones so light–
one breath and you might be forever blown.
Yet in this face of innocence you hide,
lashes unfurled like canopies to shade
your eyes—strange pools where secrets swim and dive.
For you are patterned dark and light. Storms brew
in you and lie along your shadowed face
where I can’t see. I wonder where they rise?
And where, in what far sea, they’ll rage and die.

I was trying to capture this strange phenomenon who happened to be my son. He mystified me, all that beauty and innocence, the sweet hugs and kisses, the dark furrowed brow and swirling emotions, all clashing together, in a stormy rage.

I was never satisfied with the poem though, and especially with how it ended–the word “die” disturbed me, even though it referred the storm’s end, not him.

So later I added this second part:

Sometimes I gather you to lap to find
That I can never hold the length of you:
Your fullness spills with ambiguity
And races toward dimensions past my grasp.
I must confine content to legacies
In lap. How is it I still hold what you
Outgrow? So well I know that spiraled shell.
I turn it feeling fine and subtle threads
of you, while at its core, all that’s true.
I lift that hallowed lip and wait to hear
Intuitions of you, forever near.

While I could never fully know the extent of him, I felt I knew his core. I could not hold onto him, but I could hold onto that, even if that was only the faint whisperings of what I knew him to be. What I cherished in him.

I’m holding onto that still.

But an insightful reader of my last post said something that made we realize that I cannot separate out his darker and lighter sides. He wrote:

“Looking at people with duality can help cope in crisis but it’s ultimately our single all-encompassing selves that we have to see to heal.”

“Remember HE is just another man trying to cope with this life. The problem is probably that he was too sensitive at too young of an age to learn healthy ways to cope.”

I think he’s right. I used to quip to other mothers how my son entered his “terrible twos” when he was only one and never outgrew them. At one point I felt I should never have a second child because I would never be able to handle two of him, nor could I love another child as much as I loved him.

It turned out not to be true, of course, when my daughter was born. But it shows not only how deeply I loved him, but how helpless I felt, even then, in my mothering of him, in helping him find healthy ways to cope with those swirling emotions.

Looking back, those difficult times with him were nothing compared to what we nave been going through coping with his addiction.

Perhaps it’s not surprising he has tattooed across his chest the words: “Rider on the storm.”

On his back below the nape of his neck rests a compass rose with true north pointed upward.

He’s still riding his storms, and I’m still there by his side, riding them out with him. We’re both waiting for them to end.

Or perhaps, more realistically, learning to find more healthy ways to weather the forever wind-tossed seas we sail.