Pray with me today – May I have eyes that see the best in people, a love that forgives the worst, and a soul that never loses faith in the hopeful and limitless possibility of others. Today may I have the courage to remain open and vulnerable. May I once more have the compassion to listen deeply into the depths and pain of another’s heart.
A witness assures that our stories are heard, contained and transcend time. Experiences in my own life and in my practice as a counselor and minister have caused me to concur with Maya Angelou that, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” But what produces the power and strength of witnessing, for the teller and often for the witness as well? How exactly does bearing witness benefit an individual? How is it reparative to us? And how do we, as fellow human beings help others bear nearly unbearable experiences?
Bearing witness is a term that, used in psychology, refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, to obtain empathy and support, to lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and to obtain catharsis. Most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events. We bear witness to one another through our writing, through art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.
From a psychological perspective, it is widely confirmed in the literature on the treatment of survivors of trauma, sexual abuse, and incest that validation in the course of and bearing witness is vital and necessary in remembering traumatic memories and in the healing process. And what about a story that remains unacknowledged? Does our story hold the same weight, the same significance, in the absence of a witness? Is our reality different, less meaningful perhaps, if we have no one to bear witness? If no one empathically listens to the story of our life? It seems so.
Sometimes an experience is so profound, there are no words, and we endure in silence. Yet, the emotional price of remaining silent, without a witness, is costly. Move past your inaction, don’t waste more years to share what you feel and what has transpired in prolonged silence. Sometimes the harboring, that is our greatest burden.
And what about our experience of bearing witness in counseling? Trauma survivors often cite the importance of the therapist’s validating role in their treatment; the simple act of accepting an individual’s life story can be highly therapeutic. While bearing witness is vital in the therapeutic recovery from trauma, we all have our stories to tell, even in the absence of trauma. I fondly recall the gratitude I have felt toward my own witness, whom I often refer to as an exceptional “memory keeper” and a “remarkable witness.” A witness to the story of my life, with all of its pain and joy. Sharing ourselves with others opens up a space where there once was none. Only through such space can positive memories occur and resilience prevail.
Although the tale of human experience is certainly universal, it contains unique elements for each us and we continue the art of storytelling, both verbally and nonverbally, each and every day. While some stories are sweeter than others, all long for the benefit and necessity of a witness, for a witness assures us that our stories are heard, contained, and transcend time; for it can be said that one is never truly forgotten when one is shared and carried in the hearts of others.
I would like to introduce Don Ritchie, the now deceased, “Angel of the Gap,” and one of my many unsung heroes. Mr. Ritchie is someone who gave living meaning to the term ‘Bearing Witness.’
For nearly five decades he gazed out of his Sydney home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, inspired by one of Australia’s most picturesque views. But it was not just a love for the sea that drew him to the dramatic panorama.
Don Ritchie’s window-watching had a far greater purpose. Since l964 he saved at least 160 lives, though some say the true figure is much higher. Mr Ritchie, who died two years ago at the age of 86, was known as the Angel of the Gap, a title earned for persuading people not to throw themselves off the notorious Australian suicide spot.
Like Beachy Head on the Sussex coast, the sheer cliffs at the mouth of Sydney harbour have long acted as a magnet to those who have lost all hope. But thanks to his calm voice and sympathetic manner, Mr Ritchie offered a helping hand to the desperate by engaging them in conversation on the cliff-top in their hour of need.
A modest man who did not court celebrity or praise, Mr Ritchie would spot would-be suicides from his home and slowly walk across the road to them. At the cliff-edge he would simply smile and ask them, “Can I help you in some way?” More often than not the quiet approach worked, though on some occasions he risked his own life by physically restraining the more determined from making their final leap.
Afterwards he would invite them back to his home for a cup of tea and a chat and occasionally they would return years later to thank him for saving their life. One survivor gave him a painting of an angel with the rays of the sun and the simple message: “An angel who walks amongst us.”
My ambition has always been to just get them away from the edge, to buy them time, to give them the opportunity to reflect and give them the chance to realize that things might look better the next morning,” he once confided.
“You just can’t sit there and watch them,” he added. “You’ve got to try and save them.”
Mr Ritchie’s daughter, Sue, said her father enjoyed his ocean view, but was equally determined to watch out for troubled souls. He once said an offer of help “was all that was needed to turn people around and he would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald.
He was “a great mixture of strength and compassion… an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition,” she added.
Mr Ritchie was a seaman in the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War and witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in l945.
Back in Sydney he worked in the insurance industry. He would later tell friends of the people he had saved: “I was a salesman for most of my life and I sold them life.”