When I was a teenager and young adult, I lived in West Texas, a part of Tornado Alley. Every late spring to early summer, I lived in constant dread of the tragedy that ripped through the South and Midwest last week. Several times I witnessed the tell-tale green sky and even a funnel cloud once, but gratefully, I never experienced the devastation of an actual tornado. My heart aches for all who have.
That witness role feels important to me at the moment. As I enter the darkness of winter, and heed nature’s call to go inward, I’m noticing some storms in me that want to draw me into suffering. Yet, I always have the choice to be an observer. I can look at what I’m afraid of, even feel pain, but I don’t have to be mired in misery. Unlike experiencing a real tornado, I can choose to stay in the center of the vortex and look out at the swirling. I can be a witness to my thoughts and know they are not me. I can feel my emotions and trust that they will move through and cleanse me along the way.
So too, with other people’s storms. Lately, I’ve had some folks invite me in to suffer with them. Perhaps you’ve had that experience too. That friend, co-worker or loved one who wants to draw you into their drama or blame you for their pain. When this happens, it feels natural to want to defend my views, clarify facts, or offer my “wise” advice. But I’m learning that those who want me to share responsibility for their life lessons aren’t really in a good place for listening. It’s better for me to step outside their storm and remind myself it’s not mine. Even when they are hurling unkind remarks at me like a tornado throwing around lawn furniture. As a witness, I can hold space with empathy and grace, and not get sucked in.
The definition of witness in the legal sense is someone who attests that something is true. Like the time someone crashed into my car as I was driving through an intersection and another driver stayed to tell the police the truth of what she saw. Just like that onlooker, I can attest to the truth of someone else’s experience without taking it on as my own. Sometimes when people lash out, what they really want is acknowledgement that they are hurting.
Being a witness takes some discipline, some core strength, and slowing down enough to discover what the truth actually is. My mind likes to tell me all kinds of crazy stories that stem from past wounds. I’m learning not to believe her. Instead, I’m trusting my heart, or my soul voice. One tool that works well for me here is meditation. When I remove myself from distraction, bring my awareness to my breath, and patiently wait, the mind chatter dissipates, and I can get to what is real.
Have you heard those accounts of people who were swept up by tornados and later set down? They fascinate me. I’ve always wondered what those people felt when they got sucked into the storm and were swirling around. Quite possibly they were terrified, but what if they experienced a sense of being outside their body, sort of like a witness?
What I do know is that they were released, not where they started, but in a new place, with new knowledge and most likely with deep gratitude. Something to ponder.