Betty Duffy

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Being a Witness to the Lives of Others

The following is an excerpt from an email exchange with a friend from college. We hadn't spoken in over ten years--not for any particular reason, but because people get lost after college.

The letter concerns the quality of being a witness to the lives of others. I've been puzzling for awhile about the value of exposing our lives to one another, in a marriage, in friendship, in a blog:

You talked about keeping a journal, and how it feels pointless when it doesn't culminate in anything. As you know, my senior thesis was more or less the diary of my life that year--and that STORY, that I thought would be the culmination and pinnacle of my experience. You have no idea how many times I've reread that, rewritten it, tried to turn it into something else, or viewed it as someone else's history. I have pretended it's fiction, that it is a novel, and I suppressed the memories as they actually occurred to me.

When I experienced my "reversion," I thought that breaking with my sinfulness was also a breaking with my history and the people who were witness to my sin. What feels so good about talking to you, is that I feel like I can reclaim all of that history. That history was mine, those things happened to me, and I know it, I can prove it, because YOU were there too.

Again and again, God keeps driving this point home to me, that life is relational, that there is value in community, the public, the giving witness to one another, the holding accountable, the supporting, and the challenging--as painful as all of that can be sometimes.


Lisa said...

Wow. Yes.

Pentimento said...

This is something I've always struggled with. I've broken with many of the companions of my sinful past, and I'm not sure if that was right or wrong.

Betty Duffy said...

My experience was that I knew exactly with whom I needed to break ties, but there were other people who ended up as collateral damage, lost in the flight. And I miss them. I've been fortunate to reconnect with a few of them--but not all.

Emily said...

I just finished The Seven Story Mountain and there's a section where Merton expresses the same emotion after he enters the monastery. He has given up the idea of being an writer in obedience to a superior, when a friend from NY comes and takes his poems to publish them. After the poems come out, the superiors want Merton to start writing things for them: "By this time I should have been delievered of any problems about my true identity . . . But then there was this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister. He is still on my track . . . I cannot lose him...He is supposed to be dead. . . .Nobody seems to understand that one of us has got to die."

Enbrethiliel said...


This is the best justification for the Catholic 'blogosphere EVER!

"Justification" is too legalistic a word, though. You seem to be describing something much closer to "inscape."

I, too, have lost touch with many dear friends from university and would give a great deal to reconnect with all of them. Last year, I had a very vivid dream in which everyone who lived at my hostel had a reunion--a reunion which everyone was excited about because we had a guarantee that we'd all be there. It was a strange and beautiful dream in which I hugged a lot of old acquaintances I hadn't even known I missed . . . but right before I saw the one I wanted to see the most, I woke up. =(

Betty Duffy said...

Merton's quote is very interesting. It's something I've felt often, and probably is symptomatic of more autobiographical writers. Novelists don't seem to have the same difficulties of feeling oppressed by their internal narrator--though maybe we just don't know about it because they're writing about other people rather than themselves.

Warren said...

I suspect that there are a lot of literary types who are (like me), introverts (whether hermits, or not), melancholics (deeply reflective, having an Eeyore like aspect), and highly self-critical (the interior critic is the alpha-predator in the internal taxonomy of things that live in my head).