When we experience something that is unthinkable or unbelievable, there might arise within us the need to tell someone, or conversely the need to bury that experience and never let it resurface. The experience could be something bemusing and unusual; it could also be abhorrent and horrific. When something traumatic happens that is left untold, their remains can fester and become a heavy burden. Sometimes, the reality of things becomes questionable; did it happen? Am I going crazy? Maybe I’m just imagining things…
Bearing witness is not about hunting for the objective, absolute truth, nor is it about actively trying to assuage one’s feelings and make them feel better. It is about standing alongside the person in their journey and in pursuit of their “truth”; to acknowledge their histories, where they’ve come from, and recognise the impact of these. Its power lies in providing some kind of testimony to these past events and their accompanying processes, and sends a message that affirms the importance of their experiences, that they as persons, matter.
We all have our own stories; even though the human experience is universal, each tale contains unique elements that sets it apart from others. We can’t change history, but we must remember the present always contains the past, and possibility of the future (Blackwell, 1997). Bearing witness provides recognition of how one’s life has come to be, and affords an opportunity to construct a present that is not constricted/bounded by the past.
The tree might fall quietly in the forest, making a muffled sound. But with each tree that falls, there is new life; enabling change to take root, undergrowth to take form. Only by allowing the presence of another to witness what has happened, can the shattered pieces of one’s subjective continuity start to be integrated, shaping the overall health of the forest.
Blackwell, D. (1997). Holding, containing and bearing witness: The problem of helplessness in encounters with torture survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11 (2), 81-89.