Can I Get A Witness?

"I'm sorry. I'm venting. I didn't mean to dump that on you." My friend had just been hurt deeply by another woman's angry and misdirected words. She was telling me the story holding back tears. Of course I assured her she didn't need to apologize. She knew the words weren't true, but she was struggling to let them go. She just needed a witness.

I've often wondered how I landed in the place where I am. Working in ministry with women--most of whom I absolutely cannot relate to. I haven't felt what they have felt. I haven't walked in their shoes or experienced what they have. The only thing I come equipped with is a willing heart. I am willing to listen and empathize. I have been gifted with the privilege and the honor of bearing witness.

As a young woman who had grown up in a loving home, protected and sheltered from tragedy and pain--as a child should absolutely be--I really didn't believe I had anything to offer when it came to ministry. After all, life experience is the most valuable tool in the helper's toolbox. I remember saying to a family member and friend many years ago, "If hardship builds character, then I have no character, because I have had NOTHING difficult to deal with in my life" A few years later, the same person jokingly said, "WELL. You've got some character now. Happy?"

I've learned over the years that a willingness to sit with someone in their vulnerability and listen to their pain without judgement is equal in value to life experience. It is truly all any of us wants. Someone to bear witness. Someone to receive our story and not react with shock or disappointment. Someone to love us regardless of what we have done or said, or had done or said to us.

A friend reached out to me several months ago and asked to share some things with me about herself. She wanted some support, and I agreed. She told me some of her story. It was raw and full of darkness and brutality. Aggregious sins had been committed against her and by her. It was weighing her down with grief and shame. Telling me her story both relieved her of some of that weight and added somewhat to the shame. The next day I asked her, "How are you doing? Do you have a vulnerability hangover?" (See Brene Brown's TedX talk on You tube if you're unfamiliar with this term.) She responded only "yes." In the following days she had moments of regret, wishing she hadn't subjected me to her pain. No need for us both to feel it, she thought. It took time for her to know whether or not she had made a grave mistake.

I'm not sure if I can even put words to the honor and deep grief mixed with joy that I felt after I was given this gift. Even though hearing my friend's story was disturbing and made me want to run--at the same time wishing I could scoop her up and protect her from all pain forever--I had tears of joy also. I was handed this fragile thing, this delicate gift and entrusted with it. I accepted this honor with great joy. What a huge risk it was for her to be vulnerable in this way. What an incredible honor to be her witness. I'll never forget her eyes that day, silently begging me to understand somehow who she really was at the core. She needed me to see her, to hear her, to know her. And to come back again to the friendship, knowing what I now knew.

My friend taught me something that day, and in the days that followed. I don't have to know what someone feels like to be their witness. In fact, maybe let's just remove that phrase altogether from our language: "I know how you feel." It is almost never true. My friend helped me realize I had already been acting as a witness for years. I have listened to countless women tell their stories. Some of them have been shocking. I'm grateful some things still shock me. Lord help me if I ever lose that. Some of them are also deeply sad or cause an intense anger to rise up in me. Most of the time, there is actually very little I can do to help. Even my encouragement or advice is a helpful suggestion at best. It doesn't cure pain or regret; it doesn't make a difficult decision any easier. It certainly doesn't turn back the clock on poor choices. Bearing witness is that and only that. It's saying to someone--gently and without offering opinion or strong reaction--I see you. I hear your story. I can feel some of your pain. I acknowledge that your story is worth hearing, and you deserve to be known.

That must be why we are all here, isn't it? What other reason can there be? It certainly isn't to win. It isn't to add to our resumes or check off a list of accomplishments. It isn't just to survive, to make it to the end without too many scars. Surely we are here for each other. I wonder when is the last time you gave someone the gift of bearing witness to your story? Have you ever taken that risk? I challenge you to prayerfully find someone who is trustworthy. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and tell your story. Give another person the honor of seeing you and listening to you. And if someone gives you this gift, this incredible honor, I beg you to hold gently what has been entrusted to you. This is how we connect with each other. This is what we were made to do, I believe. Even if the initial reaction is not what you hoped. The risk of vulnerability is definitely real. There are no guarantees. But what a lonely, weighty existence when we attempt to hold onto every part of our story ourselves. How much better it is when we share the burden.

Galatians 6:2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (ESV)