The Importance of Bearing Witness: Why Telling & Listening Matter

Three weeks ago today I left Rwanda to come home. Last night was the very first time since then that I haven’t dreamed about Rwanda – the faces, the stories, the children, my team’s experience there. After dreaming about it every night for 21 days, I felt surprised when I woke up. Surprised and a little sad, actually.

Rwandan girls telling stories through traditional dance

Rwanda is full of storytelling or stories waiting to be told. This is a prevalent theme that remains from our time there. There was so much remarkable courage present, which is always required to tell stories of pain and loss. These story-tellings do many things to and for both the teller and the listener. The storyteller is re-exposes emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and even physically to the experience being described, but in that exposure healing usually comes. For the story-hearer, it’s a chance to bear witness to something that gives meaning to a fellow human, a chance to experience a survivor telling the story, and much more than that. Bearing witness is important because it means listening well without judgment, and in doing so offering dignity and value to the story and the person. We can bear witness via photographs, blogging (eh-hem), testimony, painting, music, poetry . . . anything really.

I’ve considered my 21 days of dreaming an unexpected form of bearing witness. Many people who told me their stories literally asked me, “Will you please carry my story to people in the US? Will you tell it to others for me?” Of course I will. The stories were meant to be told, and I can’t keep them inside. And this request makes me think deeply about what happens when we tell stories to one another, when one person tells and another bears witness. What makes it so incredibly powerful?

The first time I ever heard the phrase “bearing witness” was when I pored over the must-read memoir of Viktor Frankl’s life at Auschwitz, Man’s Search for Meaning. I read it when I was in high school and wrote down my favorite quotes from the book in my journal at the time, which I painstakingly dug up for this post. (It probably would have been faster to just re-read the book, especially because I didn’t note page numbers, of course.) Here are some of Frankl’s words that my adolescent self copied down:

But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer ... To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

As mysterious as it is, suffering is important. Telling stories of and bearing witness to suffering is equally (if not more so) important. Many of us are champions of qualifying our pain, comparing our stories to the stories of others. But the fact is this: pain is pain. It fills us, it has power, it changes us, and like Viktor Frankl asserts in his story, we have the choice to let it overpower us or the choice to find the courage to tell, which somehow gives it all new meaning. This was the most powerful part of my experience in Rwanda: the courage people had to tell their stories and the privilege we had of taking them in and carrying them with our Rwandese brothers and sisters.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible has always been Proverbs 31:8 which says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” A long time ago this concept sent me on a mission – the fullness of which I’m realizing more every day now. And I know that part of my mission is to keep carrying and telling the stories of the brave people of Rwanda, and every human I meet who finds the courage to tell.