June 9, 2020

The Role of A Witness

Modern creatures, we must remember that we are essentially the products of a long and slow evolution. That, in the course of that time, everything we saw was both Here and Now. It was necessary to react to what we saw to maintain social order, to protect ourselves, to simply live.

Now, much of what we see on a daily basis is the product of a unilateral consumer relationship, it seems we’ve forgotten our own agency. We witness but we rarely bear witness. We just let the screen make us laugh or cry, but rarely do we let it rouse us to action. Technological achievements require us to calibrate our brains to react appropriately to what we see, which is often neither here, nor now, nor even real. When we learn to stifle the action impulse, we lose the power to act and react when we are called to do so. The dampening of consciousness acting in the police who watched their colleague kill George Floyd is the same as the one acting in the young adults who awkwardly awaited their brunch while a march for justice marched by. And despite our adeptness at looking the other way, we are still responsible for what we see, and, despite the diluted effect of distance, there is an added power in that we are now collective witnesses to so many of the crimes of humanity in our world.

Modern creatures, you are coming into consciousness in a world that is not your making, not your fault, but it is your responsibility. You have inherited the lien your ancestors failed to pay, and you become complicit the first moment you see but do not act. It is difficult to imagine what it might even look like to move out of this awkward nagging place. There is fear that the problem is too great and cannot be solved; fear that, by admitting some level of responsibility, we will never extract ourselves from the labor of justice; fear of what might be lost in time or comforts on the journey of making amends.

Listen child, and know that part of your divine purpose is to bear witness. To see something and not let it die, to volley back the knowledge to others- this is the reincarnation that humans are uniquely capable of producing.

Stopped at a red light- you see a pedestrian enter the crosswalk in the path of an oncoming car. It happens in front of your eyes. Thud-scream-thud. You part that car of yours. You call 911. You get out. Why you? Why not those in other cars behind you of the dozens that pass over the course of time that you are speaking to the dispatcher, stemming the flow of blood, fetching the flung shoe. You, because You Saw. That is how it works.

And our devices which feed us unilateral images that dilute us from connection to whatever is Here and Now and whatever is Not, those devices also have a power to make us all agents of intervention, bearers of witness, deputies of justice to events that are elsewhere just as surely as if it was us at the front of the line. The decision is not “what will I do?” but “will I do something?” The answers come in the course of action.

How can you bear witness? You can talk to your Mother, your Father, the people you Unfriended on Facebook. Talk to them and tell them what you have seen. Find out what it means to you and to them.

Do not dismiss the naive young protestors who know little about history and who have never marched, let alone voted before. I celebrate their instinct. I celebrate that so many white people, people who look like me, see that they have a role and a responsibility in a solution. Let them show up, let them listen, let them find out what chants they agree with, what words they would write on their sign, what it’s all about. Let them talk to their parents who have successfully calloused such reflexes. Let them reflect in the uncomfortable space between awareness and solution.

I don’t know exactly why I am an activist, why I speak up. Maybe it’s because it feels so much better to try than to do nothing, even when the solutions elude me. I can remember a time when I was not this way. I can remember painful moments when I witnessed something that felt abhorrently wrong to my heart and my gut and I sat waiting for others to speak up. Maybe it was the emotional reflux of those shameful memories that opened my mouth. I have been one to speak up to litterers and domestic abusers and coworkers and bosses. I speak up out of kindness and caring, not self-righteousness or vitriol. I speak up in the moments when I see something that could be better, and by speaking I can do something about it. I speak up to my boss who I admire, my parents who I respect, my boyfriend who I adore, and I humbly attempt to absorb the moments when the words are aimed at me. I believe we then learn what words don’t work (you dropped something, you asshole!”), and which do (“please don’t litter”). We practice in the small moments to prepare us for the big, and we condition ourselves to be responsible for the world we inhabit.

Where does the energy for hope come from? Positive action is a renewable energy source. It is endless and wearying and yet it provides its own batteries. The energy and the passion of the justice marchers is just such an energy. The weight of the unspoken truths are like stones in our pockets- and carrying them through still more generations is what is truly exhausting. The worst thing we can do is to conclude that we have no power, that this fight is not ours, that it won’t make a difference anyway. The worst thing we can do is die with the collective words of a lifetime of unuttered truths stuck in our throats.

June 9, 2020

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