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There are times when, faced with another person’s difficulties, the most compassionate thing we can offer is to “be there.” Be it hearing a friend’s tale of a messy relationship, catching a stranger’s begging beggareyes on a street corner, or seeing a man standing in a hospital hallway–weeping quietly–while his beloved is approaching an “unfair” death from cancer at age 53. 

“In my view,” writes social activist Bernie Glassman, “we can’t heal ourselves or others until we bear witness. … Not to deny, but to broaden our vision. Not to teach, but to listen. It’s an ever-deepening, never-ending practice. And it starts and ends with not-knowing. We don’t bear witness [by telling] other people what to do with their lives.”

I’m currently re-reading Peter Mattthiessen’s account of his personal and geographical journey into Nepal–

A child dragging useless legs is crawling up the hill outside the village. Nose to the stones, goat dung, and muddy trickles, she pulls herself along like a broken cricket. We falter, ashamed of our strong step, and noticing this, she gazes up, clear-eyed, without resentment–it seems much worse that she is pretty. … [T]he child that lies here at our boots is not a beggar; she is merely a child, staring in curiosity at tall, white strangers. I long to give her something–a new life?–yet am afraid to tamper with such dignity. And so I smile as best I can, and say “Namas-te!” “Good morning!” How absurd! And her voice follows as we go away, a small clear smiling voice–“Namas-te!”–a Sanskrit word for greeting and parting that means, “I salute you.”

sources: Glassman, B. (1998). Bearing witness: a Zen master’s lessons in making peace. New York: Belltower, pp. 76, 83.  Mattthiessen, P. (1974). The snow leopard. New York: Penguin, p.19. image:


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