To Bear Witness (a Verb)

KD Holmes,LPC

Coming out of the COVID-19 quarantine experience and wearing my mask around town, sparks some sort of surreal feeling that this is actually happening. As I have moved past the terror of getting others sick, now I am facing news reports of more suffering.  

Avoidance Is A Common Response to Trauma 

My first response is to avoid.  This is what I gravitate to when I am overwhelmed.  However, I know myself, and so I force myself to watch the news each day.  The tragic images on the TV invoke a feeling of powerlessness that does not bring inner solutions about the subject.  It is just keeps reinforcing my feelings of powerlessness.

I remember in college, 20 years ago, I had a professor in sociology who said that the civil rights movement has gone to sleep.  Also, that the subject was still very much alive in segregated areas, in the minds of many folks, but not discussed in public settings. His perspective was that this was a dangerous solution to the problem.  It needed to be brought to light so that more changes could occur.  This approach is very similar to trauma therapy.

I loved this professor, he taught me many things that I was not exposed to prior in life, elementary school, or high school.  I remember crying in some of his classes as he taught the history of our country, and the intense suffering of so many people that it was built on.  

I am the type of person who is affected immensely by hearing others' suffering.  This makes me great at being a therapist because my empathy is authentic. It pours straight from my heart, but it is difficult during times like this.

When I saw the video of a man I do not know dying, as police held him down, and others filmed it, I cried.  These are the same tears I cried as I watched images of Katrina.  It's a cumbersome feeling witnessing suffering with no perceived help.  It triggers all the stories of trauma I have heard in my career -- stories of vulnerability, being devoured, with no help in sight.  In trauma most individuals feel utterly powerless.

I know these two events are very different but the suffering of these victims evokes the same response from me. I see their powerlessness and I feel powerless.  It is called a parallel process in therapy.  

Traumatic Experiences Result in Fight, Flight, or Freeze

I know that sometimes it is hard to watch the aggressive side of suffering when it turns to anger and violence.  In the trauma world, traumatic experiences result in fight, flight, or freeze.  Of course the fight can turn to rage. It is called traumatic rage. There is the occasionally rare sociopath or person committing violence for their own selfish reasons, but most are provoked from traumatic experiences in an event like this.  

As a nation, collectively, we have been like the parent who knows that our child is being abused by the other parent, but doing nothing to stop it. We are being complacent in the abuse by way of inaction.  

Now I know I am over-generalizing, that there are countless individuals like Martin Luther King and tons of others, too many to name, who have fought for this cause.   So when the protests started, I felt like we as a nation were doing our part to stop the abuse, like a parent who would leave another parent for abusing their child.  Then seek legal action to ensure that it never occurs again.  

We are standing up. We are moving from powerless to powerful.  We do have choices.  This same awareness occurs in trauma therapy when individuals heal their trauma brains, they begin to see their power and their choices.  

To Bear Witness

How can anyone not be moved by witnessing someone's death as they cry out for help? 

Much of what I do as a therapist is bearing witness. In therapy we call it validation, empathic support, and active listening. But all those words basically mean bearing witness.  It is such a difficult job to witness and stay present through the suffering of others.

When a therapist or any individual bears witness to another's pain, healing begins for the person who receives the witnessing, and for the witness.  

There is a validation that your pain matters, that I will not look away, I will stay the course through your suffering and somehow that will bridge a gap between us.  Through bearing witness you will begin to heal, and I, the witness, will know your suffering in a profound way.  

Trauma Therapy Begins With Listening

Through this long and painful process, healing occurs.  It is not pretty nor euphoric.  It is hard work for individuals to move through trauma, and it is hard work to witness another's journey through it.  But, TOGETHER, healing occurs.  

Racial Trauma

In this way, trauma therapy is a guide for me to understand what is occurring.  By bearing witness to George Floyd's horrific death and the enormous outcry from our nation and the world, we are all attempting to do our parts to heal this massive trauma of a whole population that has been happening repeatedly for hundreds of years.  I am not black skinned or brown skinned and I have not experienced racial trauma, but I do bear witness to its horror.

Bearing Witness is a Verb 

I will not look away. This is too is happening.  I will witness with my voice and my actions.  Bearing witness is so much more than looking and listening.  It is a verb, it requires action.  My job is to witness, to stay the course, and to be changed by the experience. 

One cannot bear witness to another's suffering without being changed in the process. 

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