I saw Amour last weekend. Those of you close to me know how closely it paralleled the story of my own parents. My mother too suffered a debilitating stroke and was cared for faithfully by my dad until she died. Just writing about it brings back the tears. It was difficult to stay in my seat; at least half of me wanted desperately to flee. Afterwards, I felt absurdly grateful their story had been told and that all the world could see it. This is the amazing thing about fiction – it can reveal hidden truths most of us would rarely see otherwise.
The day after seeing the film I spoke about Mary Magdalene’s role as witness. I often think about the importance of witnessing. It means: 1. to see something happen; 2. to affirm the authenticity of; 3. to experience important events or changes; 4. to be a sign or proof of something that is happening.
Cave paintings and petroglyphs bear witness to humankind’s desire to be seen and recognized. It isn’t enough just to be seen – connection has to be established. In recognizing someone we find some point of empathy or familiarity which allows us to acknowledge kinship. The better we know ourselves, the more reference points we can find. Hence, the importance of observation, the more we see of humanity the better we know ourselves.
While it is true we want to be seen, we also fear it. The less we know ourselves, the more we fear someone else will perceive what we so desperately hide from ourselves. Claiming all of humanity’s virtues and peccadilloes for oneself is a daunting task, which can take a lifetime. There’s so much, good and bad we would rather not admit to. So it’s important not to look away when we get the opportunity to observe events in the lives of others. Those events teach us about ourselves. Understanding ourselves, we understand others. Judgment falls away. Forgiveness begins. Love happens.
According to the above definitions witnessing is more than observation, it has to do with experiencing and also with being the proof that something is happening. I think it means we must make ourselves observable. Vulnerability and visibility are key. How can others learn about themselves if we shut ourselves away and hide?
In Amour, the husband hides himself and his wife away becoming more and more reclusive and less willing to share his care. His actions are heartbreakingly understandable, but they keep his daughter from experiencing her mother’s illness and lead to murder and suicide. I wept for their daughter, disallowed the lessons in love she might have gained.
Thankfully, my father let my daughter, sister and I help care for my mother. In the process, I learned much about myself; letting go of misconceptions and assumptions I had carried for a lifetime. Because my parents allowed me to witness their lives so intimately, I got to look closely at old age and the inevitability of dissolution. I also got to watch as they met each mortification with grace, dignity and humor. I hope to weather my final decade with as much courage and character.