chickens crammed in cage
Image by Lexie Greer

by Lexie Greer


“Action is the antidote to despair.” ~ Joan Baez

When it comes to bearing witness to the atrocities of the world, I’m often told “I don’t want to know” or “I can’t watch or read that.”

I understand; I’ve said those words myself.

I also understand the importance of knowing what horrors exist in the world so that I may make MOGO (most good, least harm) choices in my words, thoughts, and actions.

Walking through life with “blinders” on and choosing not to know leaves us all disconnected and suffering.

Being able to uncover invisible systems requires me to pay attention and to know the details of those systems.

It isn’t easy to bear witness to suffering, but I believe it is worth it … they are worth it, those who are the voiceless, the defeated.

Through seeing and knowing, I am able to bolster my stamina and come to action more readily able to walk my talk and be an agent of change.

Is bearing witness part and parcel of advocacy? Of moving further down the compassion continuum? For me, bearing witness is coming back again and again to that which drives my heart and my work.

When I become too tight and rigid or when there is slack in my activism, bearing witness brings me back to the place where the fire first started.

Deep in my belly, the compassion and anger begin to churn, and I know, before too long, the embers of action have been stoked.

There are times when it all feels like too much.

Like kryptonite, the weight of cruelty smothers my power, causing me to become immobile and helpless. In those moments, when the heat builds and the immense grief arises and I can barely take it any longer, I sit quietly with the rage and sorrow, practicing the Tibetan meditation of tonglen.

In the long, quiet moments of sitting with grief I can begin to take in the suffering on my in-breath and slowly (often through tears) start to send compassion and love and peace out into the world on my out-breath.

In, out. In, out.

At first, my thoughts drift over images of the voiceless whose suffering I have witnessed.

After more breaths, I can begin to evoke tiny little seeds of compassion for those who bring suffering to others; my circle of compassion begins to widen.

More tears, more grief, deep breath in, love and compassion exhale out.

The tiny seeds begin to sprout and my heartache slowly shifts.

The dichotomy of “the other” fades. I feel an expansiveness start to make its way ever so slowly through my being. A smile forms through the tears.

In this moment, I am connected to all; my heart and hope find solace and a sense of readiness to act. In this moment, my true work begins.

As a humane educator, bearing witness is important to my work and personal growth; the practice of tonglen helps me to move out of fear and anger and into compassion for all so that I can take action to start deconstructing invisible systems in effective and meaningful ways.

This excerpt from Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem “The Invitation” helps to remind me that bearing witness to both beauty and sorrow is a very important part of this human experience and necessary to the work of humane education:

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the center of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.