Grief is a sacred journey

The Power of Witnessing: Lessons from Quakers & Life

“The world is only as fair as you can make it. Takes a lot of fight. A lot of fight. But if you stay in here, in your little cave, that’s one less fighter on the side of fair.” Libba Bray

My boyfriend and I went to our first anti-war protest in 1967. It was organized by a Quaker community and was small compared to gatherings in Washington, DC and New York later that year.

There were about 100 of us. We stayed up all night in the park with our signs, eating only white rice and tea like the poor in Vietnam. The next day we planned to carry medical supplies across Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY to the Canadian side. Vic and I weren’t Quakers, but we were desperate to do something to oppose the war.

Rally in Ithaca, NY June 30, 2018

Did we think our little protest in the park near Peace Bridge would stop the war? No.

Did we think carrying bandages across the border to Canada to be sent to North and South Vietnam would help those being bombed? No. It was a symbolic gesture of support for all those suffering, including our soldiers. After hours in police custody, we were released without charges. We were a bother, not a threat. I’m sorry to say it likely helped that we were white.

What I learned that day and night was the power of witnessing. At 22, I didn’t know the term. I didn’t know that it mattered to look at darkness, to turn toward suffering and grief rather than turn away. I still imagined I could protect myself from life’s hardships

At the Families Belong Together March in Ithaca, NY on June 30, I remembered this lesson. Did I think I could change the brutality going on at our borders and get those families back together? No. At least not right away. Did I think I could stop the president from doing more damage to people, our environment, and world peace? No. Did I think it mattered to witness and stand up for the weeping children taken from their parents who sought asylum and safety for their familes? Yes. Just like in bereavement work, it mattered to be there with an open heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve gone to many demonstrations on behalf of humane government and sane environmental laws in recent years despite struggles with Meniere’s Disease. Often they were nearby, but sometimes in Washington, DC or our state capital Albany. Sometimes it was blistering hot. Sometimes bitter cold. I often couldn’t hear the speeches because of hearing loss, but I was there.

To stand up and witness for those who suffer, for those who don’t have my privileges. To face what we’re doing as a nation. To not turn away because it’s illegal or upsetting or more than I can bear.

Like many others, I wrestle with my resistance. “I don’t want to go. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I’m too tired or too busy. I can’t do anything to help. I already do enough.” In response, I make a plan with my friends Jane and Roger. It helps me show up when the rally is at 8 am and it’s 10 degrees and windy or when the weather is steamy hot and my symptoms are acting up. “Roger and Jane are counting on me,” I tell myself. “If I back out, I might weaken their resolve, too.”

Jane and Roger, June 30, 2018

Once there on June 30, despite the heat, I wandered through the crowd, looked at signs, and found friends. I loved seeing a huge banner from the Ithaca Quakers. They’re still Witnessing. So am I.

The tide of history slowly turns on the power of love, compassion, and showing up to listen, carry a sign, or vote. This isn’t so different from volunteering at hospice or calling a grieving neighbor. This isn’t so different from protecting bluebirds or planting the flowers that pollinators need.

It’s all soul work. It’s all my work and yours. Let’s not turn away.

***

There are many ways to help others by donating money, making soup for a sick friend, signing a petition, or caring for a family member who needs us. I’d love to know how you serve but we’re not keeping score here. We’ll all doing what we can when we can. For another post about political action with Jane and Roger, see Giving Hope a Seat between Anxiety and Grief: Women’s March on Washington. Thanks to Jean Raffa for sharing the quote from Libba Bray. You might enjoy Jean’s post where I read this and many quotes about  seeking a balance between inner work and outer action: Musings from My Cave.

21 Comments
  1. Beautiful Elaine. It’s a crime how Herr tRump has stolen America. And those children break my heart daily. I too am witnessing from my side of the border. I’m part of a few political groups and try to calm and propel my American friends. Everyone makes a difference. America must rise up and speak up and show up. Enough about going low when the rethuglicans go high. It’s time for America to speak loud and take back their country. Hopefully voting blue in November won’t be stolen again by the Russians. 🙁

  2. People listen when you speak, Elaine. And I hear you loud and clear.

    Last week I donated to a young father in our church with massive heart issues. My neighbor next door, home from the hospital, needs me to bring her some food. Needs are everywhere.

    My grandmother, aunt, and mother showed me the feminine face of God as they freely gave to the poor and needy. I remember rolling thick “bales” of gauze bandages to send overseas. I too know that what we do, though it may not change policy, sends positive energy into the world.

    My favorite quaker is poet/author/theologian Parker Palmer. You may have heard of him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parker_Palmer

    May our outer action express our inner work. Amen, sister!

    • Marian, I’ve been deeply touched by stories of your feminine legacy (feminine face of God or what I call “Divine Mother”)–the taking in of refugees and helping of poor and suffering. Also the stories of what you do for others, including your older relatives and your brother. You’re a beautiful example of how to live a meaningful life and send positive energy into our suffering world.

      I do know of Parker Palmer and know many who love him. I haven’t read much, but an occasional poem or essay comes my way. So much to read–and I have Monarch caterpillars to raise!! I’m grateful for their beautiful presence in this world.

  3. Such a lovely piece. I love the ideas at the end. Keep keep it up, Elaine. Mary

    • Thank you, Mary. I’ll keep doing what I can even as that becomes less with time. I love watching the young activists.

  4. Hello Elaine, I found this piece very moving. “The power of witnessing”, our own movement through the years, and the balance between our inner work and outer work.
    Thought I would send you a poem. Hope you like it.
    Thanks.
    Gary

    Through The Cracks of This Twilight World
    6/10/2013 ( Fragment reclaimed 16th June 2018)

    When we are taken
    off guard
    and think there is
    no-one there
    to make us
    accountable
    for our words.

    We speak
    from the depths
    of our heart.
    Before the witness
    the judge and jury
    of our mind
    shames us
    once more into
    silent retreat.

    We stumble
    with the innocence
    of an unbroken child,
    or the wisdom
    of one who knows
    just how short
    life can be
    and how silence
    can last
    for all eternity.

    We speak without
    a thought
    of consequence
    and shine
    a light
    through the cracks
    in this twilight world.

    • It’s wonderful to extend this idea to self-witnessing which is my practice in meditation and in psychological work. Thank you for the exquisite poem. I’m thankful for those cracks in this twilight world. I’ll save this and read it a few times.

      • Hello Elaine, I should add that I am so pleased that people are being motivate to stand up for all that is of value in life, and against the ideologies and people that abuse and destroy. Trump is visiting the uk at the moment and we can expect huge protests. While the world is becoming more divided we at least now have a political party, who’s election slogan was “For the many not the Few” derived from a poem by Shelley.

        “Rise like lions after slumber
        In unfathomable number
        Shake your chains to earth like dew
        Which in sleep have fallen on you –
        Ye are many, they are few.”

        Best wishes
        Gary

        Hope

        • Wonderful, Gary. Democracy is struggling everywhere as those who want all resources try to hold down everyone else. Many black activists in this country aren’t surprised because they’ve been fighting for freedom for a long time and never imagined it was a done deal. Lots of people are willing to stand up here, but this guy is a trickster who keeps so many fires burning, we don’t know what to put out first. And then there’s another outrage and another fire and another crisis… I’m counting on Mueller and our court system, but we shall see. We’re in uncharted territory. And yes, Hope!

  5. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing your memories and inspiring photos with us. Your post awakens a memory from nearly forty years ago when I attended my first CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) meeting aged 15 years. Not that I understood a lot of what the adults were saying, I do recall sitting at the back of the room with the other young people sporting our proud homemade badges and emblems to give more visible support to the anti-war campaign. We paid our annual subscription and were rewarded with tea, biscuits and a life-changing documentary about the devastating effects of nuclear war. As I sat there watching the film I penned, “Complexion” on the back of some paper I had been given. It’s one of the first poems I wrote and kept, you’ll find it in the teenage section of my book. Hmm, my desire for peace came early, much earlier in life, but this was a turning point in many ways.

    Oh my goddess! I love the expression, “The Power of Witnessing” and your fitting description of it, “to stand up and witness for those who suffer.” Spot-on! Being of a poetic heart and nature, all of a sudden I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s exquisite short poem, “The Uses of Sorrow” taken from her remarkable book, “Thirst” which she wrote after her partner of over 40 years had died. Oliver writes …

    “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
    It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

    In numerous (and numinous!) ways we can all relate to those dark boxes given to us in life, the threat of nuclear war (any war!) being one of them for me … and yet even there sadness, above and below, has its uses, see how it gathers our souls together (as we are doing here on your blog) and in this moment we don’t feel so alone in our sorrow. In its place we step inside an ever growing circle of warm, loving hearts. “It’s all soul work. It’s all my work and yours. Let’s not turn away.” Just beautiful! Sending you much love and light across the oceans between us, your soul-sister, Deborah.

    • Thank you for that early story, Deborah. No wonder you feared nuclear war (we all should) after surviving a childhood family seeping with life-killing destruction. Thanks for reminding me to re-read “The Uses of Sorrow.” I have the book and read it after Vic died, but haven’t read it for many years. Like many of Mary Oliver’s words, the lines about a box full of darkness are unforgettable.

      There’s a threat a minute in this country and our present white house occupant does all he can to keep it that way. He rules by spreading fear. It’s exhausting and makes me want to run for cover. I’m grateful when I can stand with others against the horrors being unnecessarily inflicted on the world for the sake of power, money, and covering criminal activity. And there is also so much beauty. I remember Marion Woodman saying with a role of her eyes and a deep belly voice, “You didn’t think the Patriarchy would give up without a fight, did you?” I guess not.

  6. Witnessing can be the hardest thing to do, and also the easiest thing to turn away from, rationalising that ‘this does not involve me’ or it’s not my story. Yet it is essential to bear witness, to be engaged in all the suffering that is part of the world. And while we may think eg our protesting may not effect any worthwhile outcome, it does in some significant way. It’s an opportunity for our presence and voice to be heard and more importantly that those for whom we are protesting against injustice perpetrated upon them, know that THEIR voices are being heard and that they have our support. As you say Elaine, to be there with an open heart. We learn compassion, even if it doesn’t come naturally – ie if it is not our natural default. position. Thank you – this is so affirming to me personally.

    • Thank you, Susan. There has been much bearing witness to do in South Africa and you had a profoundly compassionate national teacher in Nelson Mandela. I’m sorry some of the goodness of his legacy has been so polluted by later politicians, but I’ll assume that kind of goodness makes a lasting change. Of course I agree it’s essential to show up and for those who are suffering to know that others stand with them and want to help. Also important for me to remember the privileges of my life and not take anything for granted. Sending you love across the seas.

  7. Thank you for this beautiful piece, Elaine. What I seem to be learning about this kind of witnessing, and what is so evident in how you wrote about it, is that it does not happen from a detached, intellectual place. Rather it entails feeling it in an embodied way– as you said, turning toward suffering and grief rather than distancing ourselves from it.

    I laughed when I read your comment about Marion Woodman. I have listened to her voice on tapes/CDs for many years, and can just imagine what she sounded like when she said, ““You didn’t think the Patriarchy would give up without a fight, did you?”

    I feel more hopeful when I view the terrible injustice that is happening as the death throes of patriarchy. And, as you wrote in a reply, it’s also important for us to remember the privileges of our lives and not take anything for granted.

    • Anne, I learned from Marion Woodman and many others to be in my body with feelings and let them in. Pema Chodron is also a wonderful teacher of being present to oneself, even the parts we don’t like. I try to let in whatever is there. For me, grief is easier to let in than fear or anger, but I work with them. Then from that place of feeling what is, I look for something to hold the opposite. Going down the tubes with anxiety about politics? I go check out my flowers. Feeling angry about my mother-in-law’s needs or my deafness? I spend time giving my 20 monarch caterpillars fresh milkweed or pulling weeds in the garden. Marion had a wonderful deep voice (she taught theater, among other things) and a big belly laugh. She somehow made everyone in the room feel loved and cherished. It wasn’t mushy love, but also fierce love, but all-encompassing.

  8. As a young woman I joined crowds to protest against injustice. In our surreal times, when I feel helpless, I search for poetry … Warsan Shire is one of the poets that speak to me.

    https://courseofmirrors.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/where-does-it-hurt-everywhere/

    • I’m mostly a reader of poetry and mythology and a raiser and releaser of Monarch butterflies into my milkweed fields, but there are some political actions that call me–the children and the environment, especially clean water, especially the Finger Lakes where I live. We worked 9 years to change local opinion about the dangers of storing petroleum products in old unlined salt caverns under Seneca Lake, and just this week, the governor closed the book on that possibility–after many political actions, arrests, and trips to our state capital. There will be no petroleum storage near our deep source of drinking water and inspiration. I’m glad I was involved, especially in the beginning when my health was better and so many people needed to be educated, often door to door.

      Thank you for Warsan Shire’s poem. I know it and shared it in the past. I don’t know his other poems. I’ll search for them. And I think it’s time to share this one again.

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