Bearing Witness

In “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” a book by Ariel Burger, who was a teaching assistant and lifelong student of the man who witnessed the loss of his family in the death camps of the Holocaust, I learned that Wiesel was silent for ten years before he could write “Night”, his account of his experience as an adolescent watching children turned into ash before his eyes.

There are human beings who deny that those camps existed; now we hear people denying that human behavior is causing polar icecaps to fall into the sea in mountain-sized chunks; we see how allegations of “fake news” can refute facts for some; while election results can be ignored simply by asserting that those results never happened.

Now it is more important than ever that human beings remember their sacred responsibility to witness these waves washing away human memories; and to find ways to testify before the eyes of eternity that we care about the future of our planet.

We may wonder whether remembrance of the holocaust has now been superseded by other horrors of human behavior that have occurred since and which continue to occur on a daily basis. Is blindness to the well-being of others and our planetary home so prevalent that we are hardly shocked by anything? With all the alerts of threats to our planet (the Amazon forest, whales, bees), must we just pick a few of them to notice and care about?

So, what do I feel I learned from reading “Witness”?

It wasn’t until a few days after I finished reading Burger’s remembrance of his mentor and friend–the teacher, activist, and conscience of the western world (for instance, Elie Wiesel invited President Clinton to visit Bosnia and thereby changed American foreign policy’s response to that conflict), that I realized how in a small way I too can be a witness: to my own losses and how they have changed me. Are we not all survivors of the unthinkable? Is it not in our personal losses–intolerable at first but soon folding into numbness and helplessness–that we can witness the pain that is running through our world like a plague upon the land? If we have lost someone we loved before their time, if we remember a time when we felt at home on the threshold of a promising future for ourselves and for those who will follow us–and now we no longer feel much hope for our world—that can be the doorway of grief that allows us to know where we stand on the most important things. But we must refuse to fall silently beneath the wheels of the gathering discouragement that is falling across our world like a black cloud.

How can we be a witness as we cling to our tiny rafts, stunned into stupor, while global torrents sweep us toward circumstances that we dread but don’t know how to avoid? Whereas Elie Wiesel was at the center of the descent of western society into the night, and chose to make it his lifelong task to speak about those unspeakable events and about those that are still occurring, our losses are often confined to the small stage of our own lives. What do we have to witness that has any ramifications beyond our own private pain? Are we just collateral damage in an epidemic of darkening hope for the world? How can our feelings matter in such a vast landscape of sorrow? What do we have to say that could make a difference? Just that we deplore and fear what we can see coming?

Perhaps that is not the real point. I’ve begun to feel that there is an important resource to be found in our own suffering. Not by feeling sorry for ourselves, but by looking through our own losses to see the nature of reality; to see that nothing lasts except perhaps our mistaken belief that we are ever in control of what happens in our lives. How much better to understand that we are just one human being among countless others who suffer as we do; and then to realize that in this understanding there is power. Not by accepting unnecessary suffering, either for ourselves or anyone else, but as a way that we can place our own experience alongside the experiences of other living creatures; and to extend our sense of responsibly beyond our own security and comfort. Then we may see the true cost of the blind madness that is sweeping us all along. And if we can see it, then we can begin to feel a yearning that it be otherwise. Then our prayers can be that the beauty of this world be shared with all the humans and animals who, like us, have been born here.

Still, it can feel that we just don’t have room to add awareness of universal suffering to our own, just as we can’t fit the ocean into our own small cup. But if we can look out across the vast sea from our cabin window, can our hearts not awaken to the peril that faces our home planet and the beings with whom we share our beautiful home?

5 comments to “Bearing Witness”
  1. Such beautiful words you have written and woven into a plea for us to acknowledge that there are gifts that come out of suffering.. “How much better to understand that we are just one human being among countless others who suffer as we do; and then to realize that in this understanding there is power. ” Power indeed: connections to others, eyes of faith to see more going on in the universe than what we can know with our minds alone, and the courage of our own convictions. We learn that we were never in control and a certain peace comes from that acceptance. Still, it doesn’t seem equal to the loss does it?

  2. Michael, so much packed into this one blog! I felt you expressed much of my own experience of suffering and its meaning. It reminds me of the Ram Dass book, “How Can I Help?” You candidly point out how we can feel helpless in the face of great injustice and evil. Easier to go to sleep! However, we always have the power to witness, as you affirm. I think of that in regard to the systemic and entrenched racism in this country. We can always increase our awareness of our own conditioning–not to blame ourselves (if we’re white), but to continually use it as an opportunity to see how we have all been duped by the same genocidal system that “inspired” the Nazis. Then we are able to transition to becoming advocates when appropriate.

  3. Good thoughts, MIchael. I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Weisel many years ago in ABQ. He was a truly loving being and a witness of seering honesty. . I was strongly struck by his idea that the angel of light and the angel of darkness cannot be distinguished by sight along. Only the feeling heart can distinguish them. We are at at time now when both personal and universal truth must be felt, for our external senses are being ravaged by lies and falsehoods. In the light of the growing chasms in the external world, maybe only personal truth and witnessing hold any weight.

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