The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness

Becoming Trustworthy

Recently I had the opportunity to attend an interview with Roberta Ahmanson, a wealth of knowledge around art and the Christian tradition. During the interview she specifically discussed the relationship between architecture – particularly that of churches – and the ideas that stood behind them as works of art. I have been sitting with a single statement from that interview:

[The buildings] bear witness by existing.

The idea of bearing witness seems to have become a more complicated topic in recent years. Modern advances in neuroscience – particularly the study of memory and perception – have posed doubt in our ability to see things as they are. Additional knowledge about spin and manipulation in the telling of stories to undermine the truth has added to the challenge. With seeds of doubt placed, we find ourselves in a conundrum. How are we to make choices if we doubt our ability to know what is happening? If our senses fail us, if our storytellers fail us, what input can we use to discern our context, and make choices for the future?

As with many things, defining terms may be an important starting place. Let’s begin with what it means to bear something. To bear something is to carry it. We bear our burdens. We may even bear one another’s burdens. Bearing something takes ability, a willingness, and some knowledge as to how. There is also an idea that while some burdens may feel unbearable at the start, we may be able to grow in our ability to bear things over time.

Bearing something in this way makes me think of lifting weights. There is training involved in lifting weights. It would not be expected of someone to automatically know how to carry immense weight from the beginning, nor should it be. In the best of cases, all resistance training – like weightlifting – honors this idea and considers the progression from beginner to more experienced thoughtfully.

You would never start someone off with a weight that is beyond their ability to manage. Rather, you start with a weight that takes work, but is manageable. Then, you slowly add weight over the course of a series of sets or sessions. The progression is slow and methodical, to allow the body enough time to adapt to the new requirements. Just like weightlifting, becoming the kind of person that can bear things – burdens, responsibilities, or pain perhaps – well, takes training.

Bearing also can be seen as something that you get. A weight lifter bears the marks of their practice. They carry the outcomes of repeated resistance training with them wherever they go. If they were to stop their practice, it would take those marks – the muscle growth and definition – some time to subside.

Now for witnessing. A witness is someone who is trusted to give an account of something. Some witnesses are purposefully invited to an event – the signing of a contract, or marriage perhaps. Some witnesses become witnesses because they happen to be somewhere when something happens. The witness has many purposes, but all hinge on the idea that what the witness has to say is important.

Bearing witness, then, is to carry the weight your account brings to the situation. For example, witnesses to contracts and marriages, are not just there to celebrate. They are there to bear witness to the promises being made. Over time, as commitments to promises may waver it is the witness that can serve as a reminder of the original agreement.

There is responsibility and consequences with being a witness. In the case of being witness to a possible crime, someone’s future may hang in the balance. A witness is often more highly scrutinized. Their trustworthiness is called into question as a way to discount their testimony. Blame for consequences may be laid at their feet. For their position, witnesses are recognized as an important part of the process of making good judgments. They are tasked with speaking honestly and representing their account of an event truthfully. In some cases, witnesses may be pressured or silenced precisely because their account could have such significant impact.

While witnessing in the context of a criminal court, or even a disagreement among friends, may be easily understood, there is another very important area in which bearing witness is important. It is the aspects of our lives that are unseen – our inner world, or beliefs, for example. In this case, it is our individual being that bears witness. Of course, our actions, or more broadly our lives, are the things that people see, but they are simply outcomes of the inner life that we have cultivated. Our actions carry the burden of testifying of all that we carry that an observer can’t see. Our actions are the physical manifestation of the interplay of our thoughts and emotions, will and desires, and social relationships. The only time this complex inner landscape of a person is made known is through some physical action (or inaction).

Here it bears mentioning that speaking, writing, and words in general are also actions.

With this frame, we discover a high level of responsibility and potential consequences to our actions. It may seem obvious but requires stating explicitly. Of course, our actions have consequences, and by extension we have some responsibility for those actions. Our actions, and the wake they leave behind, say something about what we consider to be true, the way we think we should go about things, and the kind of life we are pursuing.

You may ask, “What of the moments when our actions aren’t reflective of what we say we believe or want?” Of course, there are many of those. It is precisely in those moments that we have the opportunity to inquire of the disparity. Why did I do that if I say I don’t like to do that? Is there something deeper at work that allowed me to say yes to that?

You may ask, “What about the choices that have to be made in some of the tougher situations in life?” Some choices are untenable – a choice between evils, for example. And yet, given the state of the world, such choices seem to be more common than not. If a choice is untenable, maybe the way we work through the choice, and its consequences, is what we can bear witness. As if to say to those watching, “Sometimes the choices we get are not the ones we’d rather have. In those times, here’s a way to the other side.”

To be clear, I’m not here to condemn anyone for the choices they have made. I’ve made plenty of bad choices over the course of my life. Rather, I’m exploring these ideas here to give light to a way of thinking about how choices arise and, more importantly, present a process for fundamental change. To try and make every right choice in every moment of life would be a ridiculous task given our limited nature. We simply can’t see everything required to consider all the variables or envision all the outcomes of any given choice. There must be another way.

In the model of spiritual formation that I use, the human heart (or will, or spirit) is considered the executive center of the person. It is where action originates, and what energizes our person. If one is an angry person – the type of person for whom anger is the response to everything – it might be said that they may have a spirit of anger in them, or an angry heart. This is dramatically different than someone who experiences anger only as an emotion, along with the corresponding thoughts, and notably is not overrun by either the emotion or the thoughts. This energy that sits at the center of the person is not visible aside from the state of our physical being. And it is this center that we bear witness to.

I can’t tell you how many times I have found myself at odds with my own will. I feel an urge towards something, and know in my mind that moving in that direction would not be a good idea. Yet, there I go. I feel like a hypocrite. I have found myself doing the thing that I don’t want to do and unable to do the thing that I want to do [LINK Romans]. This opens the door for shame and guilt. So, I hide. I turn back into myself and try to control my behaviors, having realized that if I allow myself the freedom to do whatever is in me, not all of it would be good. Of course, it’s a mixed bag. Some things that arise naturally from me are great! The others are enough for me to shrink.

If I don’t want to shrink, there seem to be two options. One is to simply change. Just become the kind of person who is perfectly aligned within themselves and with the greater goodness that they now desire – even the kind of goodness that is universal. Then I could come out of shrinking. I could have the freedom to do whatever I wanted, and trust that it would be all good. This seems like an impossibility. I am not God, and therefore suspect that there may always be a part of me that misses the mark of such a high standard. What then? Do I have to sit and wait until I’m perfect? Maybe not. I could, instead, be honest about the reality of my life, the process I’m in, and where I think I am on that journey. I could make this the central focus of my attention (instead of pursuits of work, for example). In so doing I become a different kind of witness.

Instead of bearing witness to an outcome – the hitting or missing of a particular mark – I bear witness to a process. It is the process of becoming. It is the process of becoming a particular kind of person, and my particular experience in that. I become a witness to how I am becoming, who I am with while becoming (this is NOT a solo journey), and what has happened along the way. I bear witness to a way of life in which outcomes are less the focal point than the specific process of formation that I am in.

Bearing witness in this way is more personal, intimate, and vulnerable. There is a higher level of exposure here. Yet, it is much more freeing. There is no need to hide here. Honesty prevails. And while my own vision of myself as a high-achieving perfectionist will likely suffer greatly, its suffering will be to my benefit as a life without such burdens gives way to a life of ease and lightness – less bearing and more witnessing – ultimately landing in a place where the bearing of my witness is a function of me simply existing.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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