Seeing Others in a *Different* Way

“Maybe the job of a mother is not to shelter but to bear witness as a child hits full force… and then to cushion the fall when it’s over.”

Every now and then, I catch myself reading a piece of fiction, following along in the story, enjoying the ride, and WHAM!  I’m stopped by the author’s words in such a way that the story falls to the side and in front of me lies the mystery of an unfolding lesson.  Jolted awake in such a way, my hand automatically reaches out for the highlighter on the nightstand beside me, before I’m aware of its movement.

There is a lesson to explore.  Perhaps about me as the child I was, or me as the mother I am.  Most definitely a lesson about human nature.

As I read the above thought, which came from the mind of Mariah, the protagonist in Jodi Picoult’s book, Keeping Faith, I was reminded of my mother, with a similar first name: Mari.

Growing up, Mari did not bear witness.  No.  She swooped in and rescued, protected, anything she could so her children would not feel pain.  She was (and still is) a woman of action.  Similar to many mothers of that generation, as well as many I know today.  Truth be told, I’m sure I do the same thing with my boys more often than I’d like to admit.

As mothers, as friends, as one human to another, isn’t that our tendency?  To want to fix, to rescue, to give unsolicited advice, to share our story in response to another’s pain, in an effort to connect and offer our help?  Isn’t it our nature to want to show our support?  All the while, holding the best of intentions, hoping upon hope that at the end of the conversation, we will have massaged it out sufficiently that our beloved’s pain would be eased?

But, what if we try something new – just to shake things up?  What if we choose to bear witness to another?  Meet them where they stand, honor who they are and what their story is at that moment, and SEE them with no attempt to fix or to solve?

“To bear witness: to show by your existence that something is true.”

I must admit, this isn’t easy to do.  And in all honesty, it’s not always appropriate* either.  But I’ll also share that in a raw moment, when what you need most is to be seen and heard, when another bears witness to you, to your experience, it’s one of the most sacred gifts you’ll ever receive.

*[Regarding appropriateness,  whether or not it's a good idea to jump in and try to solve versus not, here's a good rule of thumb:  if you know the person typically asks for help/advice when they need it and they AREN'T asking for it, DON'T give it.  This would be a perfect time to give them the gift of bearing witness.]

And yes, sometimes after bearing witness to another, there comes the time to then “…cushion the fall when it’s over.”  How incredibly strong and empowered the person (the child) must feel knowing that they tried and someone was there to attest to their brave act!  After the trial, did you feel it was a success?  Great!  You have someone there to celebrate with you!!  Did you feel it was a failure?  Great!  You have someone there to celebrate YOU and your strength, your resilience, your tenacity!!

Under the right circumstances, bearing witness to another is a kind, gentle, loving act.  And a tough one, too.  When I get it right, and it’s with no small effort on my part, but when I manage to get it right with my children, I feel as if Grace has just been taught.

During this week, find it within yourself to bear witness to another.  It doesn’t require any words.  It doesn’t require any overt gesture.  It only requires your presence for another.  “To show by your existence that something is true.”

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The Cousin of Trust: Surrender

Within a week of graduating from college, I moved to Mexico City.  I immersed myself in the culture, the food, my friends, and getting to know family I had not previously met.  I ended up living with one of my cousins, getting a job as a speech pathologist, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

After I had been there close to a year, my friend Kristi came for a visit.  (Think Kristi, think HAPPY!)  We hopped a plane over to Acapulco and began an ultimate girl’s weekend.  We ate fabulous food, drank good, strong Mexican coffee (very different from anything you’ll find here), and mostly enjoyed each other’s company by doing what we do best when we’re together – - laughing!

One morning after breakfast we took a walk on the beach.  We were completely engrossed in conversation, so much so, that neither of us noticed the tide and how it had changed.  With no hint of what was about to happen, we both got swept up in the undertow.  In one large sweep, Kristi was carried out, far out to sea.  She later told me, the harder she swam, the farther away she got.

My experience was different.  I got caught in the undertow.  I was tossed upside-down, repeatedly thrown in different directions.  I was unable to stand upright;  every time I tried I was forcefully knocked down again.  My equilibrium was totally off and soon I didn’t know which direction was up or down.  The tide had taken me further down the beach, and was now slamming me into some nearby rocks.  Between the rocks and the sand, I was getting pretty beat up.  (If you’ve ever been to Acapulco, you know the sand I’m talking about.  It’s not the fine-textured, pretty sand, but the kind with jagged pieces of shell throughout.)

I’m not sure how long this lasted.  I can tell you that the fight I put up was a good one, though.  I’ve never fought like that in my life.  Ever.  Even now as I write about the experience, I can feel my heart begin to race.  it was a very intense and disturbing experience.  I was completely out of control, using my hands more as claws in an attempt to grip anything I could feel in an effort to stabilize myself.  I remember being so tired.  It was in that tired, beat down, state of exhaustion, I did something, that to this day, is the single biggest surprise of my life.  I gave up.  The fight in me was gone, and in the very instant I gave up, I clearly remember saying a prayer of apology (sort of).  That’s right.  I didn’t pray, “Please save me.”  No, I prayed, “I’m sorry.  I give up.  I surrender.  Thy Will Be Done.”  And as I allowed my muscles to go limp, a man scooped me up.  I was being carried like a sack of potatoes, tucked under a stranger’s arm, as he ran like hell to get me safely to shore.

Now, at this point, I have to admit something that I’ve always found extremely interesting about human nature.  At least, my human nature.  Now that my brain had processed that the immediate danger had passed, I only had two concerns:  where is my friend Kristi?  And is my bikini still completely covering my body?  (There was a crowd of people encircling me at this point.  It seemed a legitimate question.)

My second round of questions were:  where did this red bikini come from?  The one I was wearing was white.  And where did the man go?  I have to thank him.

I had swallowed a lot of sand and salt water, so it made it very difficult to talk.  I was still coming out of fight or flight mode, and my brain wasn’t working properly in Spanish, or so I thought.  I figured that had to be the reason the crowd was looking at me like I was crazy, surely they just didn’t understand me — my Spanish brain must not have kicked in yet.  I kept asking about my friend.  And where is the man?  My friend?  The man?  There was true urgency, and everyone just kept staring at me.  I checked that my bikini was on again (seriously, I was so confused).  Why wasn’t anyone doing anything?

A policeman arrived.  Finally, someone who would do something.  But all he kept doing, was asking me what I had been drinking.  According to him, there was no other person involved.  And there was no man.  Several by-standers confirmed that there was no man.  The police officer began to grab me to help me up, while he continued to question me as to what I had had to drink that morning.

Now I was pissed.  My friend was out there and there had been a man.  I have no idea how I did it, but I managed to stand up and push my way through the crowd.  I scanned the horizon over and over.  At last I saw a tiny thing way out, I mean way out, in the distance.  And I knew.  There was no doubt.  That tiny thing in the far off distance was Kristi.  I’m not sure how I convinced them to send a boat for her, because I lost consciousness shortly after that.  When I woke up, she was sitting next to me.  I sneezed and sand came flying out of my nose.  We looked at each other, and began to laugh.  My whole body ached.  Kristi looked like a drenched rat and I was a bloody mess, with sand flying out my my nose.  Laughing seemed like the appropriate reaction at the time.

I haven’t told this story many times over the years;  it still gives me a great deal of anxiety when I think about it.  When I have told it, people tend to focus on the man, thinking he’s some kind of unsolved mystery.  Did he slip away in all of the commotion?  Or maybe I got washed to shore and there really was no man.  Think what you will.  I can tell you exactly what he looked like.  He had a big barrel of a stomach, the kind that was hard as a drum.  He had shoulder length, black hair and kind eyes.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I like to use the Bible quote, “And when you’ve done all… stand.”  Well, in this story, I tried and I tried to stand, but I literally couldn’t.  A prayer to Trust “What IS,” a prayer to offer, “Thy Will Be Done” led me to Trust’s cousin:  Surrender.  And in that moment I was saved by my very tan, very strong, very fast running guardian angel.

So when you’ve done all… stand.  Trust.  Surrender.

Kristi on the left, I'm on the right, shortly after arriving in Acapulco. 1993

1993  Acapulco, Mexico