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Bear Witness

I had a conversation with someone today about the unfortunate killing of a homeless person on a New York City subway. The death was ruled a homicide.

Jordan Neely, died after being placed in a chokehold by another passenger on the New York City subway.

In my conversation today, with a person I didn't know well, I tried to understand his perspective about the homeless individual. His thoughts centered around the fact that the homeless man was really not a person. Really not a person! He was homeless. He was invading the man's space and being annoying.

In other words, he had declared war on the passenger simply by existing. As I listened intently, I wondered when did we get here?

When did we become so jaded about the personhood of someone because they didn't live in what we consider a "home?" When did we get so jaded that we could look at a person and choke them to death, in front of other people, as if it were some kind of a spectator sport.

I heard a term during a training yesterday that struck a chord with me. Bear Witness. I think we bear witness to many things in our lives. The good and the bad. Yet, where we find ourselves today, bearing witness to our inhumanity towards another human being, should make us all take pause.

Daniel Penny, who choked a homeless man to death on the subway, says 'it's a little bit comical' because 'I love all people.'

Penny, says it is also comical, because he has been accused of racism as well. What those on the subway were able to bear witness to, was a man shouting he was hungry and acting erratically. Not one person reported that he was assaultive.

As we bear witness to our own fear and inhumanity, have we become so afraid of each other that a man asking for food, should be placed in a choke hold by someone who saw him as a threat...even if he wasn't threatening?

As we bear witness to what we perceive as a "good human," based upon race, gender, age, social economic status, religion, sexual orientation, or so many other ism's, it's really easy to say after the fact, "I am not (add your prejudice here)."

I am learning that as I "Bear Witness" to the world around me, my subconscious mind holds many things that are preconceived ideas or thoughts about the world and people I see.

Yet, as I bear witness to my own behaviors, I recall one of my favorite books, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, by Judith Butler. One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

What those on that subway were bearing witness to was not simply one human being in trauma, but two. Daniel Penny allowed his life's circumstances to culminate in the death of another human being. Everything Mr. Penny had done, seen and become in his life culminated in the trauma he exhibited.

What those on that subway witnessed was not one victim but two. There will be those who disagree with me about Mr. Penny being a victim. Yet, if we think about take a life is not an easy thing to do.

While Mr. Penny describes himself in news media stories as a loving, family man who loves all people, unconscious bias shows up as trauma (whether that trauma is racism, transphobia, homophobia or any other phobia locked in our unconscious minds).

What showed up on that subway, and what those passengers, and now all of us who read details from the media, is what we are all bearing witness to. The rise of trauma being acted out from George Floyd to Jordan Neely.

How can we overcome this? As we bear witness to life around us, intercede. Don't just become a bystander. Don't just allow your own trauma and fear to stop you from allowing the best in our humanity to override the worst in our humanity.

My conversation with the person I had just met ended with him telling me I was a Pollyanna, and that the world was a terrible place, and I should just suck it all up.

I left him with parting words as well... "I hope my irrepressible optimism and my tendency to find good in life will serve you one day as well," I said.

I'm starting something new here on my blog: What' I'm Reading. My reading list of top five books I recommend for you. I hope you enjoy reading and learning as much as I do.

  1. Ryan Holiday - Discipline is Destiny

  2. Judith Butler - Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

  3. Ann Wroe - Pontius Pilate

  4. Anwar El Sadat - In Search of Identity

  5. Julia Quinn & Shonda Rhimes - Queen Charlotte: Before the Bridgerton's came the love story that changed the ton...

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