Saturday, January 4, 2020

Ruth Krall, "Bearing Witness: Part One — Paying Attention"

 Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

This is the third essay in Ruth Krall's series of essays entitled "Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time." It argues persuasively for an understanding of faithful witness that is based on being fully present inside our life situation and carefully observant of our surroundings. Because this essay is rather long and rich, I'm going to post it in two pieces. What follows is the first half of the essay, whose title is "Bearing Witness: Part One — Paying Attention." (Note numbers begin at xxix because this essay is a continuation of two that preceded it.)

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

"Bearing Witness: Part One — Paying Attention"

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child; but when I grew up, I put away childish things. (xxix)

For many years now, I’ve been thinking about these two words — bearing witness. In one sense bearing a truthful or faithful witness is based upon (1) being fully present inside our life situation and (2) careful observation of our surroundings. It involves paying attention and seeing what is actually present in our personal and social environments.

In our grade school years, teachers and parents often admonished us to pay attention. In our high school and college years, other teachers showed us varied ways to pay attention. We gradually learned how to focus our attention and to study the world around us for ourselves. Over time we learned how to question what we thought we knew for sure — often learning that our information and knowledge were incomplete, perhaps overtly and deeply flawed, or even factually untrue. In time we learned to separate trustworthy sources of information from less trustworthy ones. We learned about propaganda and false facts. We learned about setting in place appropriate interpersonal boundaries. We learned how to recognize lying in ourselves and in others. In short, we learned to separate factual truth from lies, propaganda, wishful fantasies, idle gossip, politically-motivated ideologies, magical thinking, and half-truths. As we paid attention, we began to have an educated intuition about untrustworthy individuals and their so-called facts. We learned to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. The semiotic truths represented by literary fiction and poetry were, we learned, quite different from the scientific truths of the natural and biological sciences and the narrative truths of history and biography.

In our experimentation with life, we gradually learned that lying to ourselves or to others was not a good idea. Lies quite often returned to us — biting us on the ass. With each experienced bite we learned something about the need to develop personal integrity. Along the way, we learned there was no Santa Claus and there was no Easter Bunny and that on Halloween no witches flew about on broom-power alone. We learned, in other words, to separate fiction and fairy tales from truth; lies from facts; idle gossip from truth-telling; and trustworthy individuals from untrustworthy ones. Knowing that rumors could be simultaneously malicious and contain necessary facts, we learned to double-check and, in some situations, triple-check the information we received inside our familial, social, and professional networks of relationships. Because even chronic liars sometimes tell the truth, we created an inner grid or process of fact-checking dubious information. We learned over time to create a network of individuals where we could safely check information and our internal perceptions about truth or lies with people we trusted.

By our individual and personal processes of experimentation with life, we gradually learned that our deepest intuitions — while fallible — often contained more accurate truthfulness about ourselves and others than we could explain. Learning to trust these inner red and green flags took time and maturity, but if something seemed too good to be true, it most likely was not true at all. If someone came across as hostile or as having an evil intentionality towards us, we noticed this. Gradually and painfully we learned that sometimes truth-telling was as malicious and as harmful as lying. As we matured, we learned to test our intuitions about maliciousness by consulting with those whom we trusted. We learned, slowly, to trust our gut feelings about others' intentionality as well as their claims about veracity. Along the way we made many mistakes. By paying attention, we learned from our own mistakes and from the mistakes of others.

As we continuously interacted with our culture and learned its stash of collected wisdoms and folk tales, our internal gyroscope grew more accurate. We learned that if something smelled really bad — in the physical world or in our moral-ethical-social environment — it was important to pay attention. If one was truly wise, one self-protectively investigated the source of the foul odor or toxic environment; finding it polluted or corrupted, we often chose to move away. We passively or actively sought how to escape this foul-smelling or toxic-looking reality or, conversely being civic-minded, we perhaps stayed long enough to asses, analyze, diagnose it, and to clean up the mess.

Some toxic environments meant wearing protective gear during the clean-up process. Chest waders are helpful in cleaning up polluted swamps. Protective gloves are essential in cleaning up roadside trash.

In cleaning up spiritually toxic environments (to avoid spreading the toxicity and to avoid traumatizing the self and others), trustworthy and attentive individuals needed to activate their most-trusted personal, interpersonal, and spiritual resources. In my experience with life to date, especially in complex situations of institutional wrong-doing, I often needed wise elders as well as equally concerned and committed peers.

Bearing witness, in this sense of the phrase's meaning, involves paying attention. It means seeing what is factually in front of us before we trip over it. It means testing our individual and collective perceptions to see what is truthful, what is overt or covert propaganda, what is partial truth, what is an outright lie, and what is a shaded, highly nuanced message meant to deceive us.

In our developmental journey to adulthood, we stopped being gullible (not all advertising could be trusted; not all adults were harmless; not all preachers faithfully sought to live the Gospel they so earnestly preached on Sunday mornings; not all spiritual teachers or theologians recognized and taught wisdom and truth). Over time, as we matured, we learned to ask questions about that which presented itself to us as truth in its absolute and its hypothetical or metaphysical forms as well as in its factual forms.

In our humanities classes we learned to separate factual truths from philosophical and spiritual (or metaphysical) claims about truth. In our clinical courses we learned to recognize that what we "knew" to be factual truth was sometimes not truth at all (masturbation will not cause hair to grow on your palms nor does it cause acne).

As we matured and learned about a wide variety of human cultures (and their unique metaphysical claims), we began to see factual truth as a category of reliable information we needed to memorize: 12 inches always equaled a foot; 8 fluid ounces always equaled a cup; sixteen ounces always equaled a pound. Factual truth is not measured in terms of its metaphysical relevancy; it is measured in terms of its accuracy and its usefulness. However, as we learned about cups and rulers, we also needed to learn that there were many different ways of measuring length and volume. Distances could be measured in centimeters and kilometers as well as in inches or miles. Flour, for example, could be weighed for a cake recipe and/or it could be measured in a cup. Some forms of factual data, we learned, were less technologically precise than others. A 1-X tee shirt could be cut generously or stingily. Thus, not all 1-X tee shirts fit the same body in precisely the same way. A pound of flour gave us a more accurate measure for gourmet cooking than flour measured in cups. Sifting flour, we learned, affected the measured volume but it did not affect its measured weight.

In our natural science classes, as another example, we learned to question the inherited wisdom from our parents and our culture (for example: a cookie dropped on the floor was probably not safe to pick up and eat no matter what the parents' five seconds rule stated); wearing tampons did not cause cancer; eating walnuts did not make us beautiful; grabbing and holding a bunch of poison ivy did, however, cause our palms to redden and blister.

No matter how cautiously we approached life, there were no guarantees that we would be spared its trauma. Putting metaphorical blinders on our eyes; putting metaphorical ear plugs in our ears; wearing metaphorical elbow-length industrial gloves and covering our nose and mouth with heavy masks: we became unable to see, hear, touch, and smell the complexities of factual truth.

In our microbiology laboratory classes, seeing something on a slide under microscopic lens, we were asked to reproduce this seeing on paper. My drawings were never photographically precise images. They were mere often clumsy approximations. We were asked to use petri dishes and a growing medium to grow these cells and then see what they looked like in the aggregate — the tiny, naked-to-the-human-eye individual organism now made visible in a collective form. We were asked to wash our hands — thoroughly cleaning them — and then to grow a culture of the organisms that remained. We were asked to eat brie or Roquefort cheeses and then to culture them. Our awareness — and attentiveness — to the details of these "invisible" worlds of bacteria (living individual cells) was growing. We not only looked through "our" microscope; we looked through the microscopes of our classmates — always making a rough sketch or drawing of what we saw — making visible to others that which had once been invisible to us.

Paying attention, we saw that these living organisms could be collected and seen as individuals and as collectives. We could, therefore, learn about their life cycles and reproductive processes. That which had once been invisible to us was now predictably visible. Not only had our eyes been taught to see; our mind had been similarly shaped towards questions of meaning and understanding. The five-second rule of our childhood changed its meaning as we learned the potential dangers about eating food that had fallen to the floor.

In our social science classes, we learned about invisible but potent realities such as economic structures; socially permeable boundaries such as race, ethnicity, class structures, and gender; socio-political governance, or the invisible but highly operational personality structure (i.e., the empathic barrier) which allowed intuitive information to pass between and among individuals. Some of us (but certainly not all of us) were taught that churches as socio-cultural institutions were, therefore, governed by the social rules of all institutions in our particular cultures. In a similar way, the socio-personal structures of authoritarianism could be identified and studied.

Churches could, therefore, be studied in the same way other social institutions such as schools or multinational corporations could be studied. Churches were subject to the same kinds of economic pressures and socio-cultural forces that other institutions experienced. Each of our culture's institutions could, for example, have corrupted leaders. The similarities, as well as differences, between a sexually corrupt pastor and a sexually corrupt public school teacher could be identified.  The institutional responses to employee sexual abuse could, therefore, also be identified and studied.  

Churches and other religious organizations not only carried the religious and spiritual wisdom of their long histories; they were also deeply embedded inside the cultural matrix of their time in history. Churches therefore, often reflected or mirrored their surrounding socio-cultural environments. There were, we slowly learned, no 100% pure and culturally non-contaminated institutional churches. Mortal and fallible human beings created fallible human churches and these same mortal and fallible human beings worshipped inside them. Sometimes (more often than not) our cultural understanding blurred between that which was divinely inspired and that which was humanly created. Over time we learned that churches routinely get into moral and ethical trouble when they claim divine origins for their human-created structures, ideologies, and liturgies.

There are moral, ethical ,and spiritual equivalents to physical blinders, ear plugs, gloves, and face masks. They allow us to avoid knowing uncomfortable factual truths. In addition, they allow us to escape the moral and ethical needs for our religious and secular cultures to bear a truthful witness. They allow us to remain naïve and innocent of the moral and ethical dilemmas which arise inside human relationships and human institutions.

In our youth, the hard-earned folk wisdom of our elders was examined for its relevance in our generational lives. As elders, we are now the carriers of such inherited, collected, and collated wisdom. Inevitably, we will experience the questions of the young as they seek to determine if our hard-earned personal share of our culture's wisdom has any relevance for their generation, for their future.  

When I think about the so-called wisdom my culture has taught me, I am reminded of the wisdom of ancient Hebrew Scriptures: Vanity of vanity; all is vanity. (xxx)

This past week, I had a routine medical appointment. A new blood test has been developed which is not dependent upon fasting. A simple finger prick — immediately able to be analyzed in the doctor's office — can give an accurate picture that reflects a three months history and analysis of your blood sugars.The reading is nearly immediate — within fifteen minutes of the blood draw the result can be given to the client and posted on his or her chart for comparison at the next visit. That which lodges invisible in the human body is now made visible in the physician's office laboratory.

The precursor to this new visibility is the human capacity to ask questions of the human body and to develop technological means by which to retrieve accurate answers from the body itself. The physician serves as the intermediary by which the body's answers arrive. In essence, she or he serves as the body's witness and whistle-blower.  She or he intuits that the body's wisdom about itself must be made visible in order to assess the well-being of the whole — and proceeds to investigate the intuitive question, seeking an answer that is not always visible to the naked eye.

The scientific method itself is a way of paying attention; historical research is another; meditation practices are yet another; even altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis allow for a focused way of paying attention.

Our parents and our teachers gradually handed the external world over to us in order that we could manage our own life trajectories. Unexpected realities needed to be managed. Unexplained quandaries needed to be investigated. But, given a little luck, crises were few and our personalities gained needed time and wisdom for managing them if and when they happened.

Entering Adulthood

Once we entered adulthood, we became responsible for monitoring our world, for interdependently interacting with it in multiple ways. We also became responsible for protecting the young while they — the next generations — learned how to pay attention. Witnessing their innocence, their naiveté and their curiosity about life, we re-visit, if we are wise, what we know —for sure — is absolute and unchanging and unalterable. We do not ask them to believe that which we know is untrue. We make certain they know the difference between fantasy and factual reality. We make certain that they know the difference between unsafe and safe realities in their daily lives.

While Spiderman can jump between skyscrapers to pursue justice and can fly across raging rivers to rescue the damsel in distress, we do not want our children jumping off rooftops to see if they, too, have magical powers just like Spiderman and Superman do.  

As a child I listened to my Let's Pretend vinyl record of Jack and the Bean Stalk and never once believed that bean stalks grew into the clouds and could be climbed by giants. Likewise, as an eight- or nine-year-old child, I listened to a weekly radio version of Buck Rogers and never once believed that space travel actually happened or dreamed it could, in real life, happen. As an adult, I have often wondered how many of the world’' early astronauts and space scientists listened to Buck Rogers as children.

Fantasy nourishes a child's imagination; this nourishment is essential to their growth and development. But we should not lie to children about factual truths. We should not threaten them with metaphysical bromides about heaven and hell. Most especially, we should not lie to them about facts they need to learn in order to lead a healthy life.

In addition, we need to learn to listen to them as they tell us the truths about their own lives — truths about daily life and everyday relationships. We should pay attention, as well, to that which they cannot yet encode into language. Their bodies and their hours of play carry the lived-truth of their daily lives just as our adult bodies and daily routines carry the truth of our own daily lives.

I am not a critic of fairy tales and fantasy movies for children. But I do know it is a narrow field of play. The child who hears the Little Engine that Could speak English needs to know that in real life mechanical train engines do not talk English to each other. The child who reads the luminous series of Harry Potter books needs to know that these miraculous and mythical stories about magic are make-believe.

I personally learned in very early childhood that Santa was my father.  I still pretended to believe when I visited the department store Santa on the fifth floor. I was willing to trade my childhood integrity for a holiday spiced lollypop. According to my mother many years later: before I went to grade school, I began asking: Why are there so many Santa Claus men on the streets? Which is the real one?

But by Christmas of first grade, I was an unbeliever. The guy in the red suit was a fictional character just like the English-speaking train engine of my earlier childhood book was a fantasy. In my family, the pretense of a Santa Claus lasted well into adolescence and beyond because the annual filled Christmas stocking with its note of (1) commendation and (2) suggestions of needs for improvement was hung during the night of Christmas Eve while we kids slept. I wish I had saved those notes — they were my dad's loving reminders about growth areas in our lives— complete with lumps of coal. But they also contained loving affirmations of the year past and his hopes for us in the year ahead. In my early childhood — under war and post-war rationing — oranges were a holiday delight and so oranges were a part of the holiday stocking stuffers. Later that morning they would become part of our family's mid-day holiday meal. But there were other small gifts as well— Santa was not cheap nor was he petty when it came to his children.  Santa’s helper — my mom — assisted in this stocking ritual. As an adult looking back, I am quite certain she did 99 % of the shopping and wrapping that was needed. I am equally certain that Santa's letters were my dad's original form of celebrating his children's maturation processes.

In re-thinking these paragraphs, I, with new insight, realized how many Santa Claus figures the department store needed to hire in order to make one complete fantasy for children. The red-suited guy in the airplane who flew over our hometown dropping department store flyers about Santa's arrival was likely not the same red-suited man who climbed the fire truck ladder to the top floor of the department store — to climb in its window and then wave to all of us on the ground below. And the Santa we told our wishes to was probably a different man — also in a red suit — than these previous two ones. At my current age, I am sure there is a moral to this story of these trinitarian Santa figures but I am not sure what it is.

I just know this: fantasy nurtures a child's imagination. My parents both enabled their children's imaginative life. In addition, they helped us to know the difference between what was real and what was fantasy. It is essential, therefore, that imagination mature as part of the child's journey though childhood and adolescence into adult life. Getting stuck in childhood beliefs, fantasies, and wishes is a sure sign of a failed developmental process.

However, when it comes to violence and harm inside the human commons or inside families, "let's pretend" has no place. What is called for is paying attention, purposeful listening, truth-speaking, and compassionate kindness.

With life experience, we become able to focus our attention on one thing or allow it to scan the multiple horizons of our lives in a spontaneous and non-focused way. Opening and closing our attention enables us to understand the always present and always shifting social boundaries of our lives. It allows us to pay attention in multiple ways and in multiple situations.

For example, opening and closing our empathic barrier allows us to stay focused. In turn, this allows us to avoid being overwhelmed by external stimuli. Like shutting an office door in order to concentrate on a task that needs to be done, we can open and close our psychic apparatus to preserve our abilities to interact with others and to get work done.

Catastrophic Experiences

Some catastrophes come from nature itself: tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning strikes, earthquakes, tsunamis hurling themselves against coastal shores, volcanoes blowing their top, mountain avalanches, dry lightning wildfires that destroy thousands of acres of vegetation and human homes, devastating heat waves and drought, rivers flooding or drying up completely, and tropical cyclones. We now know, thanks to the work of scientists and activists, that global warming is a reality and that it threatens all life forms on earth.

Some catastrophes, however, such as murder, robbery, war, mass gun violence, and rape are maliciously delivered to our doorsteps by human others. Some, such as poverty caused by economic injustice; trauma caused by war; homelessness caused by others; greed and carelessness and body injuries caused by accidents are each vague in our awareness until they affect us directly

In addition, some personal catastrophes come from our not paying attention to the surroundings in which we live. They come from disregarding warning signals or from taking foolish risks. Falling off a ladder, falling off scaffolding, falling off a cliff, falling off a bicycle — each probably has multiple causes as well as multiple consequences. If we live; if we are not seriously injured, we probably will try to avoid replications of these kinds of accidents. We pay attention in new ways and with new intensities.

For example, I am convinced in old age that my experiences with falling during childhood — falling off bicycles, falling while climbing "cliffs," falling while ice-skating and roller-skating, falling while running, etc. — help me in old age falls. My body learned how to fall and how to shield itself from major injuries. From childhood on, scarred knees testified to a child who took on life at full blast and did not stop for bloody knees or a turned ankle. Learning to manage these small traumas in childhood taught me when I could manage alone and when I needed others to help me. Each trauma managed taught me something about managing trauma. Each trauma managed taught me something about being more careful. Each fall taught me how to fall and how to be more careful.

If, on the other hand, we are traumatized by the actions of others, for example, while doing some recreational boating, we are maliciously shoved overboard and almost drown, we learn something about being cautious around others who may not have our best interests at heart. In proximity to this shoving person, we will pay attention in more focused and more intense ways. We may, on future occasions, refuse to go boating with them. If we have had our purse stolen because of our own carelessness, we become more careful about watchfulness and knowing the whereabouts of future purses.For example: I have been in environments where pick-pockets and purse snatchers were common. In those environments, I always took precautions ahead of entering the situation or scene so that I was a less likely target.

In situations where others do deliberate and knowing harm to us, our physical and emotional trauma is now complicated by the trauma of human betrayal.Experiences of human betrayal are accompanied by a consequent loss of trust. Questions of justice, accountability, reprisal, retribution, and revenge now enter our consciousness. We meet head-on the spiritual questions of revenge, retaliation, mercy, or forgiveness. In adult life, we confront issues about others' betrayal in ways that demand we answer questions about our own selves as well.

As we mature through the lifespan, we learn the price of not paying attention. With each cost paid, we grow in wisdom; we grow in our ability to be discerning. Our intuition matures. We learn to test it in a wide variety of life situations: we learn to ask trustworthy others: Do you see this situation, this third party, or this issue the way I see it? When and where it seems important to us, we may research the issue by reading up on it or by talking to experts who know more than we know.

Dulling the sensory apparatus with drugs such as alcohol, heroin, grass, opiods, nicotine, or carbohydrates and sugar creates an illusionary inner world — and thus an illusionary outer one as well.  The substances of illusion — and they are found in every world culture — dull the inner capacity of human beings to pay attention, and thus, to apprehend factual reality. They interfere with the human ability to intuit imminent danger.They mess up the mind's ability to pay attention (i.e., bear witness) to its surroundings and in this way diminish the human ability to protect itself from harm. These substances of illusion may be rumored to expand human consciousness but, in my opinion, what they do best is color, distort, distract, and be-cloud our ability to pay attention.  Because they decrease our abilities to pay attention, they interfere with and suspend our deepest intuitions about personal and collective safety.


xxix. 1 Corinthians 13:11 NLT.
xxx. Ecclesiastes 1:1 KJV.

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