The pain of witnessing & the action of caring

care (v.)
Old English carian, cearian “be anxious or solicitous; grieve; feel concern or interest,” from Proto-Germanic *karo- “lament,” hence “grief, care” (source also of Old Saxon karon “to lament, to care, to sorrow, complain,” Old High German charon “complain, lament,” Gothic karon “be anxious”), said to be from PIE root *gar- “cry out, call, scream.” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Our hyper-connected media world forces us all to wrestle with an extra layer of emotional suffering: that painful sense of helplessness we feel in witnessing the horrible sufferings of others without being able to help.

Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2020 In the Winter/Spring 2020 Harvard Divinity Bulletin, editor in chief Wendy McDowell addresses this “pain of witnessing” in her introductory essay, “Blessed are the Caregivers” (1-2).

In 2007, a senior boy McDowell had taught was killed in a car accident. She struggled with how to be of support to others, especially for Paul’s classmates and family and friends.  “The death of a child renders the usual platitudes hollow and useless.”

Her colleague Sarah Coakley, who had served as a chaplain in hospital and prison settings and as a parish priest, gave her wise counsel: “Don’t be afraid to let your students see you grieve…. They need to know you are with them in their sorrow.”

McDowell asks: “What does it mean to care in the midst of a tragedy? What does caring look like when the tragedy is widespread and ongoing?”  America’s horrific political chaos compounds what she calls the “twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism.”

The virus has upended all of our lives—but not equally. It is disproportionately killing the most vulnerable in our society, and women of color throughout the world are bearing the biggest brunt from its devastating economic consequences.

Many mental health professionals are predicting, and already starting to see, a “tsunami of grief” from the death toll, job losses, family disruptions, and social isolation.

In this same period, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black citizens have sparked another reckoning with 244 years of crushing white supremacy in this country. (2)

McDowell borrows a phrase from “Let My People Go: The Scandal of Mass Incarceration in the Land of the Free,” the article by Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta: “How do we care for one another in a nation that has a ‘sickness in the body politic’…, and when that nation—literally and metaphorically—is on fire?”

11/23/2020 Poor People's Campaign caravan in Topeka KS

She begins to find an answer in the etymology of the word “care.”

The etymological root of the word “care” points us to a full range of responses. Based in grief, lament, and sorrow, its actions include “to cry out, call, scream,” and “to complain.”

The authors in this issue are chaplains, faith leaders, and professors. In these roles, they lament inequities, cry out for change, and “feel concern and interest” for their students, parishioners, and patients, helping those they serve to expand their horizons and accompanying them through the grieving process. (2)

The essence of McDowell’s insight is this:

When Jesus declared “Blessed are those who mourn,” I don’t think he meant that mourning is a desirable state but he wanted to reassure his listeners that mourning is a divinely protected state—it is a sacred, liminal time during which God is in our corner offering comfort and peace. (2)

The pivotal point, though, is that as we are mourning for others, we also do whatever we can.  If we cannot be where the caregivers and the grievers are, then we invest all our creativity in seeking out ways to send them direct support, as well as to advocate as effectively as possible for their relief.

We are all one.

Blessèd Be,

Image: “Kansans caravan in mourning for COVID-19, demand legislators reject ‘politics of austerity’,” Kansas participants in the Poor People’s Campaign caravan of mourning lament the death of 1,400 people in the state and the tens of thousands at risk of losing utilities or housing. (Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector, 11/23/2020).



3 comments On The pain of witnessing & the action of caring

  • Thank you for this, Mike. Thoughtful, as always, and so timely for me personally today.

  • Susan Taylor

    I had not named “the extra layer of emotional suffering caused by witnessing the horrible sufferings of others we can do nothing about.” Glad to have this help in identifying, acknowledging and integrating “the pain of witnessing.”

    Also found fascinating the etymological roots of “care.”

    Thanks, Mike.

  • This is a timely post as I delve deeper into understanding how spirituality intersects with activism. Thank you for this post… as this topic is much on my own mind these moments. I do hope it picks up momentum.

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