Bearing Witness in Love
Deuteronomy 5:16; Romans 12:9-13
I heard the famous psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk interviewed recently. He has devoted years to studying trauma and its impact on the human psyche. He was telling a story about his very early years in the work, when he was just starting out, at a VA hospital in the United States, just after the end of the Vietnam War.
The doctor had a Vietnam Vet that came to him and told him that he couldn’t sleep. When the Doctor asked why, the Vet said he was waking up from nightmares. He would re-live certain very tragic battles that they had engaged in Vietnam and he would see again all of the guys from his unit, very few of whom actually returned to the United States.
The doctor sort of sprang to life because he had just been doing research on nightmares. He told the Vet about some of the advances that they had made. He told him that he had some medicine to prescribe that would help him sleep deeper and probably not wake up during the night and he gave the soldier some specific meditation techniques to use in order to deflect the impact of the nightmares on him. With confidence, he sent the soldier on his way.
The soldier comes back in two weeks for a follow up visit and the doctor wants the soldier to fill out a chart on his sleeping for the past couple weeks to trace their diminishing power. And the soldier says to him, “Doctor I didn’t take the sleeping medication and I’m not going to take it.”
The young physician looks confused and said, “But this medication works. I guarantee it.”
“I’m sure it does” said the soldier “but I’m not going to take it. “The soldier said to him, “I realized that I need to have my nightmares.”
“Why do you need nightmares?” the physician asked.
“I need to become a living memorial to the guys that I left behind in Vietnam. I’m afraid that if the nightmares stop, I’ll lose my connection to those guys.”
Dr. Van Der Kolk said, “that’s when I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to study this amazing capacity that we humans have to transform our lives into a living testimonial- a living memorial- that we can develop and keep this connection to something that is no more.”
I think in every family, there are certain seasons of the year, certain events in your family life when you become more aware of the influence of the past that have shaped you. Negatively or positively doesn’t matter so much as the general awareness that it is your path, your life, your story.
I bring this up right now because for many of us, will have a moment of reflection like that in the next week, returning to see our family perhaps near where we grew up.
These moments percolate indirectly, almost inadvertently. It is seeing a tree from your childhood that is now so huge. It is being the butt of a family joke you never found all that funny. It is finding yourself making a dish just like your grandmother and your mother made it for these occasions.
Of course growing up is more complicated than just remembering the good things. A close friend of mine once told me, “Most of the gifts that my father gave me were precisely those things I needed to transcend in myself growing up in order to be really worthy of love.” But you get to a point, where you can look back in gratitude at a fairly wide swath of the good and the not so good because these are exactly the waters you swam in to become the person you are today, for better and worse.
Our ancestors in Scotland used to invoke the image of an unbroken circle during certain times of the year. They would make a pilgrimage to these sites that had a standing circle of stones and they would gather in a circle, holding hands. Outside the stones there was a ditch that probably symbolized the boundary between this world and the other world. On the outside of the circle, they built these burial mounds, crypts. And like a year after your loved ones died in the family, you would put their bones in these family crypts. They would all process into the circle on one bridge and then out of the circle on another bridge.
We know that they thought that our deceased ancestors had the power to either bless us or curse us from beyond the grave. I know the first time that I stood at the circle of stones at Brodegar in the far north of Scotland, I couldn’t help but think of the pathos of that insight because, of course, our families very much have the power to bless us or curse us. We certainly feel blessed or cursed, sometimes both at once.
St. Paul’s sage advice to the Romans was this. Invoke the spiritual power of your positive energy. Work these things on through to the point that you can appropriate your mentors from the past, even if they were compromised and not all that helpful, so that you can bless the rising generation and get this better. He says, ‘outdo one another in showing honor.’
The good and the bad were all part of how you became you. What is it that you stand for that is important? What are the values that you have today, because of your past, that are noble? What do you want to leave with the rising generation that will guide them where they need to go?
Create new traditions that you can use to teach them, ground them that they might be wiser for having been under your care. The truth is that our families are always evolving. We have people dying and people being born. We have people getting married and people getting divorced. The cast of characters is always changing.
As you know, traditions can die with the generation. Sometimes during the holidays, you can experience a moment of really deep sadness, remembering a relative, a spouse perhaps, that did this lovely little tradition that only they could do.
One of the guys that lived above me freshman year, Jay, died a few years ago from a brain tumor. His roommates from college look after his boys who are now in college themselves. One of them was sharing a joke with a son. Turns out the kid has exactly his father’s laugh- a very distinctive laugh like no one else. The kid is laughing, my friend is laughing. Then my friend from college is crying because that laugh unlocked a portal with a long hall that led back to freshman year at Wake Forest… and a connection that is gone. For just a moment, you wish like hell you could go back.
But we can’t go back. They wouldn’t want you to go back either. So St. Paul says, ‘Outdo one another in showing honor.’ Create new traditions that reflect what your people gave to you, what you’ve learned in growing and becoming, and make something that will be a blessing for the next generation.
I hope for you the creativity to create rituals of kindness. We know that our children are tempted in this generation to become inordinately self-absorbed. Technology and gadgets help keep them diverted and entertained. And we have this wider commercial culture this time of year that gets them focused on ‘what am I going to get’. Black Friday creeped into Thanksgiving evening a couple years ago. I see this year that Macy’s is celebrating “Spectacular Saturday” in two days. Can ‘Super Sunday’ be far behind.
We want to counter the crass commercialization of our season. I hope you can build into your preparations for the holidays, some ritual that gives your children and grandchildren the ability to do something kind for other members of your family, perhaps something kind for a neighbor. Maybe they can help you bake something to give away to others, so they feel the sense of accomplishment and have the joy of making others happy.
I hope you can build in traditions of compassion and love, like going together to drop off Turkeys for the homeless or serving at a soup kitchen at some point between now and Christmas.
I hope you can build in tradition of love, like guiding them to give a personalized gift to someone else, whether it is a sibling, a cousin or a neighbor, that shows that they really understand this person and are going out of their way to do something nice.
It is not just about getting, but about giving…. We have to demonstrate that for them and then structure it so they can do it themselves.
Because the spiritual profundity of the holiday season is developing gratitude for what came before us, particularly remembering the deep love that we’ve been given to know, to draw upon that so that we might become more generous of spirit in all aspects of our lives, and to let that guide us.
And for those of us who have been privileged to know a deep love in the past that is no longer present, a special prayer for you as you grieve and celebrate at the same time. I think of Bernie Glassman and his wife Jishu.
For most of their life, they lived in metropolitan New York where they met. She followed his life early in their marriage, living where his career took them, but his wife long wanted to live in the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside of Santa Fe, and to establish a spiritual community, to find a more holistic way of living than mid-town Manhattan offered.
After many, many years, it finally opened up and they moved. They bought an old house, which need lots of work, but it was, as he says, “a perfect refuge”.
Bernie writes, “We arrived on Monday and moved into our house on Tuesday. The following Sunday, as we were hanging pictures on the wall, Jishu (his wife) complained of chest pains. She was hurried to the hospital, where the doctors verified that she had suffered a major heart attack. For the next four days she seemed to get stronger and better. But on Thursday night Jishu suffered a second heart attack, and she left this form of existence on Friday night, the first day of spring, four days shy of her fifty-seventh birthday.
People ask me how I’m doing. It takes a while for me to reply, for it’s hard to answer them in word. Finally, I tell them I’m bearing witness.
But how do you feel, they ask me.
I’m raw, I tell them.”
Do you feel sad?”
I shake my head. Raw doesn’t feel good or bad. Raw is the smell of the lilacs by the back door, not six feet away from the relics on the mantel. Raw is listening to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony or the songs of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Raw is reading the hundreds of letters that come in, watching television alone at night.
I live in a house chosen by my wife, reflecting her tastes and wishes. My own choice would be a studio in New York City’s Bowery, not a house in a canyon overlooking a river. Those were the things Jishu wanted and Jishu is gone. So I live in her house- I call it Casa Jishu- and do the things she would have loved. I greet the dawn coming over the mountains, watch the hummingbirds, prune the lilac bushes. Each time I think of the smile on her face had she been here to do these things. Instead I do them, bearing witness to her presence and her absence.
How am I doing?”
I’m bearing witness. And the state of bearing witness is the state of love.”
It is a funny thing that when we are young, we are so intent on finding out who we are, establishing our own identity. And if we are lucky enough in the middle of our life to have profound love, whether with a spouse or good friends, we open ourselves intimately. After a few years, we find that we have become quite different people than we ever would have imagined that we would have become because we have loved and been loved. It is not the only way to live, but as Paul says, it is the more excellent way. Profound love is about being open to being changed by another; it is about letting yourself become the support that makes other people grow and flourish; it is about bringing out the higher spiritual capacities that we are meant to manifest.
This holiday may you draw upon your cloud of witnesses from the unbroken circle. May you remember the love you have been shown. May you become generous of spirit with those around you. May you outdo others around you in showing honor to those that have reflected love your way. Amen.


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