Can I Get A Witness
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
“People need to be encouraged. People need to be reminded of how wonderful they are. People need to be believed in— told that they are brave and smart and capable of accomplishing all the dreams they dream and more. Remind each other of this.”
― Stacey Jean Speer
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we as humans subconsciously seek to know that the experiences we go through and the mountains we attain are real— something that can only be given to us through the validation of another being— a witness. We require the eyes of a witness in grand celebrations, marriage, a great story, a new adventure, a promotion at work, thrilling debates, and accomplished milestones. We also equally desire a witness throughout times of despair and great tragedy. We value the comfort of a friend, refuge in relatability, courage in testimonies, and ultimately, knowing we are not alone in our suffering. If we don’t have that second eyewitness, our experiences may not feel as real or as important as they should. When the only person we share a moment with is ourselves, we may question how valid our own testimonies are and feel isolated or unseen.
Human beings are not meant to bear witness just to their own lives, but to the legacy of those surrounding them. For this reason, it is essential that we learn to lean on each other and become cheerleaders for both the obvious good and overlooked good we see in one another. In the Bible, Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us, “therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” In this race we call life, pay attention to the “cloud of witnesses” who are present in your own life. The ones who speak life over you and remind you of who you are and what it is you hope to become. They may very well be a voice God uses in your life to encourage you. When you begin to get tired or overwhelmed, look to the ones cheering you on. You have a whole army of angels and saints, friends and family, watching you and encouraging you to continue on. They are your witnesses, and you, theirs.
This post contains three stories of three impactful moments I’ve had, both as a witness and as someone who has been witnessed. I hope as you read them you begin to think of the people in your life who have encouraged you and those you’ve encouraged. May we all bear witness to the good we see in everyone and may it bring light and love to the surface more often.
1. The impact of a witness.
Five years ago, my family and I went on Greg’s Make-A-Wish trip to see the Mayan Ruins. As a senior in high school, I was extremely overwhelmed by the amount of work I would be missing and how far I would fall behind; so much so that I had a hard time focusing on the purpose of our trip. When I came back to school a week later, I had gone through my first three classes and received the anticipated piles of makeup work from each teacher. I was physically and emotionally drained by the time I got to my last class. Expecting the same response I had gotten from the rest of my teachers that day, I reluctantly asked this teacher what work I had missed. To my surprise, he just smiled and said, "Don’t worry about it, it’s not important. You’re fine.” Having spent the entirety of the day hearing very different responses, I was so taken aback that I actually thought I had heard him wrong. Realizing my confusion, he then repeated himself and I remained in disbelief. That night I checked my grades online and saw that he had filled in the previous week’s work with the word “excused.”
It might sound odd that those actions and words were so impactful to me, but you have to understand that I had just spent the six hours before his class thinking, “this is normal, this is how we treat people.” We tell them we’re sorry that they’re going through XYZ, but ultimately to “suck it up and get back to work. Life moves on, you can’t fall behind.” That was the message I had felt from everyone before him. I thought they were the rule, he was the exception. Looking back on it now, it’s hard for me to ever imagine putting myself in their shoes and not choosing his response every single time. His actions and words were not representative of them all, but they were the right ones. How we treat people, it matters.
A good teacher helps their students learn new knowledge and course material, but a great teacher, they teach you how to be a better person. What he taught and demonstrated for me that day, was that understanding and compassion always override deadlines, policies, and work. I’m sure he broke a rule and a half to cut me some slack that day and excuse me for everything, no questions asked; but look what’s come of it. Half a decade has gone by and that lesson has continued to impact me and allowed me to put people and love first. To acknowledge their situation and react accordingly. It’s helped me to become a better student, a better friend, and a better leader. It’s taught me that empathy and professionalism are not mutually exclusive, rather intertwined. Care for your fellow classmates, teammates, and coworkers first and then find your way back to normal. Give them time. Give them rest. There can be no steps taken forward to a solution or end goal without first demonstrating empathy of another person’s struggle. You can't expect them to climb out of the hole without giving them your hand.
While I am sure he would do the same again for anyone in a similar situation, I wanted to make sure he understood how thankful I was for his kindness and that his actions were significant and virtuous. In life, we go about our business, choosing smalls acts of kindness which subsequently make ripples that turn into waves. The struggle is, we don’t always feel appreciated because at the same time, everyone else is also going about their business. We come to believe that our little ocean isn’t seen, that it doesn’t matter because no one’s told us they like the sand we’ve used or the color of the water, and so we stop choosing certain things that were positive and good. And consequently, our waves become smaller and our sunsets less vibrant. The sad truth is that really, there are a lot of silent lovers in the world who are too busy or too shy or too scared to tell you that they love the ocean you’ve created. My hope for us all is that when we see someone else’s kindness, beauty, goodness—the tides moving and how tremendous they look on the shore— we tell them how magnificent they are so that they keep doing it and it continues onto their horizon. That’s the impact of a witness.
Knowing the power of a kind word, I wanted to make it apparent that I saw the good in him and that his response—however easy or simple it was to him—changed me for the better. “Sacrifice and the corresponding virtue of humility aren't built on giant gestures as much as they are forged with consistent, thoughtful actions of an everyday nature." Sometimes the little things we do are just as heroic and noble as a grand gesture; and many times, the little moments reveal a person’s true character more than a big moment ever could. Those are the moments we must never take for granted and the ones we mustn’t forget to compliment.
Today, I went back to find the email I had sent him that afternoon thanking him for his everyday, thoughtful action. This is what 16-year-old Emily had to say:
Sometimes it’s not the load that weighs us down, but the way we carry it— sharing the weight together is how we survive without being crushed. How we shoulder the burden of life and who shows up to grab the weight as we begin to crumble is evidence to the impact a witness can have on our lives. That day, I never forgot who showed up.
Five years later, I still remember exactly where in the classroom I was sitting at that moment. I remember the feeling I had before I got there. I remember the feeling I had after he said those words. I remember feeling seen and heard without having spoken a word about the anxiety of the day. He just recognized it. And that’s why he became one of my most impactful teachers and favorite people.
That day was too heavy for me to carry alone and he helped shoulder the weight. He was my witness.
In this moment, he validated me and my feelings, I verbally recognized him and his actions, and humility showed up. This type of interaction is exactly what the world needs more of—transparent empathy and gratitude that is spoken out loud and with conviction. The point of this entire blog post is to recognize the importance of validating others. Their actions, their feelings, the qualities they embody—and not just to see it, but to speak it. And to do it genuinely, without expecting any sort of reciprocation. Because since this day, I have ironically realized that when you do genuinely show up for someone and acknowledge the good they’ve done, they always meet you with the same authenticity and appreciation back.
2. Be the witness.
Following graduation, one of my former classmates and fellow greyhounds invited me to connect on LinkedIn. He and I had shared a few classes here and there, but weren’t close in the sense that we hung out on the weekends or grabbed lunch together. Mostly, we’d run into each other on the Quad and spend a moment or two catching up and talking about life. While there weren’t many of them, the conversations I did have with him were refreshing and light. I don’t know if it was because he was a D1 athlete and stood a foot taller than me, that he had to focus so hard as he looked down so far, but I always felt he was so absorbed in the conversation and genuinely interested in what I was saying. He made eye contact the whole time, gave verbal and physical cues, asked questions, listened so intently that the words I spoke were quite literally written in the expressions of his face. Every time I would leave a conversation with him, I couldn’t believe how consistent he was in his ability to completely listen and become so engrossed in making others feel so important.
Because of COVID, I didn’t get to see or say goodbye to many of the people at Loyola who I wanted to acknowledge and thank in person, him being one of them. Even though I had told my roommates of the qualities I admired in him, I had never actually told him how much I appreciated the talks we had. So, when I got that notification, I decided to send him a message on LinkedIn telling him.
The gist of it went like this:
“_______!! Congratulations on graduating! I’m so grateful I got to know just a small part of you the last four years. You’ve always been so kind and genuine towards myself and so many others and I’ll miss running into you on campus. Whenever I see your name I always think of that quote ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel.’ Thanks for always making me feel like a million bucks after our quick conversations around campus. Even though there weren’t a whole lot, I always felt like you paid such close attention to what I was saying and truly cared about my thoughts and feelings. Not a lot of people listen to understand, most listen to reply. Thanks for being the former— Don’t ever lose that!”
To which he replied:
“Emily – Wow! This is probably the most sincere, nicest thing anybody has ever said to me… thank you! And thank you for always being so nice to me! And inspiring me to do more. Probably didn’t seem like it at the time, but I thought that it was super cool and inspiring you started a club. And I️ love that about details and listening to understand. I think that’s so important. It’s actually something I’ve tried to practice and work on, but nobody’s ever really said anything about it, so thank you haha. You are awesome, smart, and beautiful I️ have no doubt you will be successful as well.”
“It’s actually something I’ve tried to practice and work on, but nobody’s ever really said anything about it.”
That phrase is exactly why, when you see something good in someone, you say it. The message that I sent, people don’t really do that anymore. We don’t say the things that we should. And why do we do that? Why do we withhold reassurance and validation from those who deserve it? We think maybe it’s weird, too vulnerable, it takes too much time, it’s awkward, scary? Truthfully, I don’t know why this happens. But, how tragic would it be if one day he woke up and decided to stop doing this because no one had noticed it. How heartbreaking would it have been if I was the one God chose to encourage him and I didn’t show up to tell him. Would he have stopped and let go of the beauty? Could I have changed his mind with a sentence or two?
I was genuinely shocked that no one had ever complimented him on it before because to me— the ability he had to listen and be fully present in a conversation— it was unmatched. I started to think of how many people are walking around, like him, doing incredible things (however ordinary they may seem), thinking no one sees them, when really, we do, we just don’t tell them. How often have I walked around practicing something I’ve been working on, and maybe questioned why because no one recognized it or told me. Probably every day.
As Craig Groeschel, a pastor at Life Church, says, you should “never rob someone of the blessing of encouragement.” Luckily, I did listen to God. I showed up, feeling awkward and worried that I might be judged, and I told him… and look what happened!
Authentic appreciation meet reciprocated admiration.
Truthfully, I didn’t really care if he replied to my message or not. My intention wasn’t for him to compliment me back, I just wanted to share with him what I had witnessed in him, and it turned out that he felt comfortable enough to reply as a witness to the good he saw in me. Those are the conversations we all should have more often. Those are the deep and holy words that we should give away and fill up on every day.
As much as we maybe hate to admit it, validation feels good and we do want it. We may not care what people think of us, but we certainly care that they do think of us. We care to be seen.
“Have you ever noticed when you hand over a new pen to someone to try, the first thing they will usually write is their own name? We do this on misted car windows, on frosted glass, etched on tables, carved into the trunks of trees, whether it is our initials, or our names. I guess we all share a common fear. The fear of being forgotten.” — Nikita Gill
People underestimate their capacity to make someone’s day better through the words they speak. We underestimate the gift we have to praise. I think if we all spent a little more time intentionally looking out for the good in one another, and telling each other, we’d all be a lot happier. There’d be a lot more smiling and laughing and peace. There’d be a lot more love flowing in and out of all of us.
3. Be witnessed.
Social Media in general is a community of witnesses. You will never create a Social Media account without engaging in some sort of witness-like experience. You don’t create an account without the intention of following others or having others follow you. We post for others to see us, and similarly, to see others through the things they post. Who we follow, what we look at, what we share, it’s all a diary of the person we are. We come up with words, photos, filters, and content to share for a variety of reasons including affirmation, motivation, accountability, validation, promotion, admiration, inspiration, awareness, etc. and all of them add up to us.
Throughout quarantine, I’ve been thinking a lot about Social Media and the implications of it. The value it brings on both ends of the spectrum. On one side, connecting and inspiring people from all over the world instantaneously and on the other side, spreading hate and fear. I have a love hate relationship when it comes to online sharing and posting content. While I enjoy sharing updates about my life and photos with my friends and family, I can easily fall into the trap of purposely posting rather than purposefully posting. Sometimes I need to take a step back and decide if it’s necessary I post something? Is it authentic and kind and important? Why do I need others to witness this?
Two years ago, when I got back from New Zealand, I took to Social Media for accountability. I started to recognize just how much I complained about superficial things and how I had failed to recognize and truly appreciate how lucky I was for the many undeserved blessings in my life. So, in an attempt to hold myself accountable, be more positive, and to celebrate everything good in life, I began posting one photo a day for a month with a caption on what I was grateful for that day.
Initially, I was super hesitant to share photos and words every day because I didn’t know how people would respond to it. I was prepared for a lot of unfollows, a lot of judgement, and some not so nice messages, but what actually happened was quite the opposite. I had dozens of people reach out to me through direct messages, comments, texts, and had numerous people (some I’d never met before) come up to me in person to talk about my posts. They shared with me their struggles, their thoughts, their passions, their stories, their thanks, and every time they reached out, they helped me to remember that Social Media isn’t about impressing people, it’s about impacting people. Through a superficial platform, those posts showed me depth, understanding, connection, and humility; and it’s exactly the type of interaction I wish we all could experience a little more often. They gave me hope that there is still so much good left in the world and proved that authenticity is always more important than approval.
Social Media, became my witness. Those people held me accountable, inspired me, let me be me, let me use Instagram in a different way, and gave me hope in humanity.
One of my favorite messages I received was from a girl I went to school with. While we didn’t know each other well, her words were so genuine and heartfelt. She sent:
“Hey! I just wanted to tell you how much I love your Instagram posts about what you are grateful for. I found them really inspiring and they’ve really motivated me to be more appreciative of the things and people around me. I took a break from Social Media last year because I was so overwhelmed by it and would often compare myself to others. I felt like I was on it for the wrong reasons so seeing you take something that has had negative connotations for me and make it so positive and so honest was just incredible! I just wanted to thank you because your posts have really changed my perspective and I’ve been more conscious of the thoughts and energy I’ve been putting into the world. Sorry for the long message, but I just really wanted you to know how much I appreciated your amazing posts! Hopefully I’ll see you around campus in the fall!”
Another one said:
“I just want to thank you for being such an encouragement with your “Today I’m grateful” posts. So, I thought to myself maybe I’d share mine. Today I’m grateful to have witnessed something refreshing and insightful from a person whom I have never met or spoke to, but simply stumbled upon. I used to write in my gratitude journal 3 things I am grateful for each day, but I never thought to myself that I could share that with others on Social Media. Social Media tends to focus on ME ME ME ME, but to witness someone use their platform to express what they are grateful for and point to God is simply beautiful. And if you haven’t figured it out, I’m talking about you. I pray that this fire you have to Love God and Love Others continues to burn bright and that you will continue to be filled with praises and a heart full of thanksgiving. Thank you for being such an encouragement and challenging me to use this ME platform to point to HIM.”
“I just really wanted you to know how much I appreciated your amazing posts.”
“Thank you for being such an encouragement and challenging me to use this ME platform to point to HIM.”
There it is again. So simple, yet so heartfelt and kind. The recognition of something beautiful you see in someone else. They took something I was uncertain and a bit insecure about and validated the good they saw in it. They made me feel better about the words I wrote and the idea behind it. Instagram, like all Social Media, is a highlight real and I was using it differently on purpose. They validated that decision and celebrated it. Two people I barely knew became a cloud of witnesses for me and two years later, I still melt every time I read their words. Knowing that feeling and the confidence they gifted me, it inspired me to do the same. I got better at noticing and appreciating the good in others and making it a point to tell them. Again, the power of a thoughtful word and a witness.
“It feels so good to be kind. It’s the warm feeling you get when you tell someone that they look nice today, or that they did a good job, or that their voice sounds lovely, or that the cookies they baked were delicious, or how you always laugh at their jokes. It’s the warm feeling you get when they respond bashfully, or surprised, with that small smile and thankfulness that shines in their eyes. It feels so good when someone is kind to you. When it feels like the effort you put into yourself is seen and acknowledged and appreciated. It feels good when you’re able to make someone feel that wonderful. We should always try and encourage each other.” –Unknown
My challenge for anyone who reads this is to find at least one person a day who does something or says something beautiful… and then tell them. Whether you know them better than you know yourself or it’s a stranger you’ve never met before. Share the good you see in them, with them, and watch them light up. Be their witness and be witnessed. Kindness isn’t complicated, when you witness something good, say it.