The Art of Witnessing

The Art of Witnessing
By Jesse Lockwood (SP ‘23)

Back in June I had the honor of giving a graduation speech for the Leadership Columbus Signature Program Class of 2023. Heart palpitations aside, it was an incredible moment to have with my colleagues and their loved ones, and LC leadership. One of my favorite moments was sharing a few words about a book that I had recently finished, “All About Love” by Bell Hooks (if you haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend it!).

In a nutshell, the book examines and challenges our societal and personal grasp on love and how it shows up in our personal and communal relationships. Hooks, borrowing a phrase coined by psychoanalyst, philosopher, and psychologist Alice Miller, guides her readers through the concept of “the enlightened witness”—an individual who “offers hope, love,and guidance.”

There lay the crux of my speech. How could we be more intentional about this kind of magic with our interaction with others? How could we, freshly minted alums, transmute our unique experience in this leadership program in the ways we choose to engage and serve within our communities? I had a few ideas, but the possibilities felt as vast as a rock spinning out in space.

 Although the immediate glow of graduation has since waned with the chill of an impending fall, the idea of witnessing has still been churning in my mind. 

 Here are a few ruminations I’ve had since.

Being a witness is fundamental to leadership. If you’re reading this blog, I imagine that you are motivated to lead in some way. I think a common pitfall of leadership is focusing too hard on leadership. Being a witness takes the pressure off ourselves and our performance, instead emphasizing the need to build relationships with those we aim to serve. 

Being a witness challenges the way we show up for others and ourselves. In bearing witness we participate in something sacred, which is an exchange of presence. We agree to show up authentically and receive others in a way so that they can do the same. Vulnerability becomes our saving grace, with community working as the crucible in which we can refine how we approach connection with others.  

Opportunities to witness and be witnessed are all around us. I think opportunities come to us if we’re willing; from having overdue conversations with loved ones to sharing a skill or talent as a conduit to a community that you have not experienced before. The key is to be open to stepping out of your comfort zone, and be intentional in leveraging your knowledge, experience, relationships, and passions to transform circumstances around you.

Prepare for your heart to be broken. Bearing witness is ultimately about expansion. And expansion isn’t always comfortable. Like a natural disaster can wreak havoc on the physical trappings of a community, being a witness means aiding in the brave work of repair, helping to put the pieces together.

Prepare for your heart to be inspired. The blessing of being immersed in community as an intentional witness is the fortune of being there when. History is full of miraculous occurrences pointing to our resiliency in times of tragedy.

Being a witness calls us to stay present. That is, when and if we can. The space between “here” and “there” can be painfully vast. Recently I’ve been engaging in meditation, and one thing I love is the idea of not getting too far into the past or future. After all, community work is ultimately about the people and taking care of each other as we take care of everything else. There is no “us” without us.

Recently I learned that bearing witness can happen in the most unexpected ways.

A few weeks ago, I had a craving for my favorite Chinese restaurant. Once I ordered arguably more than I could reasonably consume in one sitting, I settled myself into one of the leather chairs in the waiting area as it began to rain.  Soon after an elderly lady bustled in and sat in the vacant chair next to me.

Besides Asian cuisine, I also have a weakness for small talk. I quickly noticed the grey swoops and swirls of an obviously freshly done “do” and complimented her hairstyle. We quickly chatted about African American hair rituals.

She chuckled. “Aww, I’ve been using the hot comb for 70 years.” Then she paused, her face turning serious.  “I hate to ask you this, but could you possibly take me home? Usually, I walk to my retirement home from here but I’m afraid of getting my hair wet.”

I nodded solemnly. One of the most tragic things to happen after spending hours at a beauty shop is to step outside, only to have your hair instantly yield to the terror of precipitation.

Even still, I was hesitant. She would be a stranger after all, in my car.  After a few moments of tossing over the idea, I realized that she was probably more vulnerable than I was—and I figured it would be better to take her home than have her try her luck with someone else.

The conversation flowed as we hit Broad St. She told me about where she was from, her children, her grandchildren. I told her about being a newish mom, how much I wanted to be a grandmother and have that legacy. “It will happen,” she replied.

“You know, I really enjoyed this,” I said as we pulled up to the entrance of her retirement home. “I’ve been missing my grandmother, so it’s been real nice to talk with you.”

 She softly put her hand on my arm. “Well, tell her that she raised an amazing granddaughter.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my grandmother had passed away seven years ago.  “I will,” I said with a small smile.

I watched her as she got out of the car, walked towards the entrance until she disappeared inside. As I peeled off, it was then that I began to cry.

Cried because of her fear of asking for help. Because we were experiencing a world that created that initial hesitance. Because it was only a few days after my grandmother’s birthday and for a moment it felt like she was in the car with me. Because of the deep wisdom that comes with connecting with the elderly community. Because trust really is a delicate, beautiful dance. Because of the warmth I would have missed if I had said no.

A part of me felt silly tearing up like that. It was just a car ride. But was it?

How can we be open to witnessing in new ways that expand our community consciousness? I challenge you to be open to the joys and growth that comes with “bearing witness”. May it grant you a continuous flow towards a beautiful truth—that we are all connected in the most mysterious ways. And let the knowledge set forth the most miraculous regeneration, over and over again.