Witnessing the Unexpected

April 13, 2022 | Tags: ,

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in the world is to see something and tell what [they] saw in a plain way. … To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.” —John Ruskin

To witness is no small thing. Opening our senses and our hearts to the world around us, and to name what we notice and what we believe it means, depends on all our human faculties – of observation, understanding, compassion, and language. No wonder we consider it the work of poets and painters, of prophets and preachers, of judges and justice seekers. But witnessing is not just the special work of a few. It is the everyday invitation to each of us as friends and companions, as neighbors and citizens, to attend to one another with our hearts and senses wide open. We are all called to the witness stand of this day, to notice and name what we’ve seen – and to let it change us and guide us.

In the 19th century, before video and its ubiquitous sharing, citizens sometimes traveled to a warfront to watch. At Bull Run, the first battle of the U.S. Civil War, a large gathering of spectators traveled seven hours by carriage from Washington to watch what was expected to be a short and decisive skirmish. As we now know, it was so much more than that, sending the spectators home in horror and haste as witnesses to a fierce and bloody battle wounding or killing 5,000 soldiers and beginning a long war that would kill over a half million more.

Today, we have no distance to travel as witnesses to the world’s battlefronts. The horrors of the war in Ukraine play repeatedly in our homes and our hands as we watch on television and cell phone the destruction and suffering unfolding. Even closer are the battles being fought in our own communities and lives. As Adrienne Rich wrote 25 years ago, now “there is no demilitarized zone, no line dividing war from peace.” The violence of our times is right here, wherever here is. We are all witnesses, whether we want to be or not.

The question here is, What does our faith ask of us as witnesses? What will we do with what we have seen?  

In general, we are asked not to turn away – in our attention and our heart. Though, at times, this means we must pause our watching (sometimes turning off the news), to keep our hearts open. Our faith invites us to be compassionately changed by what we observe, and to let what we learn call us into more compassionate living and action.

But there’s more. Our faith calls our attention not only to what we have noticed, but also to what we might miss. To the periphery of our senses. To what lies between or beyond our expectations and assumptions. To the often invisible connections between us, between your story and mine. To the story behind the story.

The human brain mostly notices what is expected. What we observe through our senses travels through the brain on neuropathways and the paths more frequently traveled light up more easily. We are quicker to see or hear what we are accustomed to seeing or hearing. It’s sobering to consider what this means, given a steady news diet of warfare and violence, of polarization and discord. But the good news is, our brains are designed to change. Neuroplasticity means at any age we can open new neuropathways or widen old ones, allowing our brains to notice what we might have missed before: The possibilities for peace. The compassionate response. The connection between all beings.

This is the power of the Easter story, revisited this month: the stone rolled away, revealing not only an empty tomb but a whole new story rising from it. A dramatically different possibility than any of the witnesses on that day had expected – and what follows, in the story and the millennia since then, is all about how they were changed by it and gave witness to their change.

How have you been changed by what you’ve witnessed? What possibilities – for peace, for compassion, for love and beauty – are already present in the periphery of your awareness? And how might you widen the paths, in your mind and your heart, toward these, both real and possible? When called to give witness today, what will you say?

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