A tutor asked us to make a short list of important memories, then extract a common theme to develop a short autobiographical film. My list came quickly enough but wasn’t a bit autobiographical. All the memories were about other people. That didn’t surprise me. I earned my living as a trauma therapist where somebody else’s story was the important one and I wrote fiction which is a beautiful place to hide all sorts of truths about oneself.
I nearly started the list over, but something made me look at it again. Although initially the memories seemed to exclude me, in truth, I had participated in a very particular way. Not as a grey and bland extra standing to the side. Not as someone listening to a story, then telling my own, similar one. I had been a witness. A very present Somebody Else reverberating the primary experience of the main character in the story.
Probably not a novel idea to many people; we incorporate witnesses in most of our rituals. But I’d never stepped outside of the observer role to look back and contemplate that position. Several of you know what happened next because I asked you to think of a time when you were a witness. For whatever reason, it struck a chord. You spoke to my camera and together we made a 3 minute film about the importance of witnessing the love stories of a ninety year old woman. The bellows of cattle put down during the foot and mouth purge. A child struggling to survive poverty. A wife watching her husband slowly die.
In the study of trauma, it’s been shown that people witnessing an act of violence can be more traumatised than the victim, which is a significant trauma in itself. On the other hand, the most effective way to start the healing process after a trauma isn’t to have a great therapist but to reconnect in a significant way with our society, most effectively through family and friends.
Witnessing strips away the anonymity of events and grounds them with meaning. It honours both the main player and the witness. It often generates love regardless of the sorrow or even horror that might be involved. When we are mindfully present with another human being, we give and receive healing, celebration, comfort, congratulation, affirmation. The witnessing becomes inextricably linked to the event. Which makes it one of the most important things that we do. The amazing thing is that so many times without thought, we do it so well. Humans are like that.