The other day, I had to go to one of those big Westfield shopping centres. I hate them – they’re a stimulation-sensitive introvert’s nightmare, especially on a Thursday which, for reasons passing my understanding, is busier than other weekdays. But go there I did, and I got my shopping done as quickly as possible and I took my purchases to the car, and I drove to the car park exit and I put my ticket into the machine expecting it to swallow it, politely if inauthentically wish me a nice day, and then open the boom gate to let me out. Except that it didn’t – it swallowed my ticket and then sat there, impassive.
I sighed, pressed the call button and waited an interminable amount of time before a lovely man came and let me out (he, with more plausibility, also wished me a nice day) – but I was struck by the driver of one car, who pulled up at the adjacent ticket machine, opened her window and asked me if I was ok.
Of course I was, and she rolled her eyes at me in commiseration at the intractability of technology supposed to make life easier, and then drove away. But it was nice. It was nice that she stopped, and it was nice that she took the time, and it was nice that she cared.
Once, in another lifetime, I took a bit of a beating in a busy pub. Not a bad one – a few slaps, a drunken seated attempt to kick me in the ribs which succeeded in nothing more than spilled beer and a muddy smear on the side of my shirt – but it was bad enough; and not one person intervened.
They were kindness itself to me after it was over, when my ex had stormed out leaving me with shaking hands and bruised pride, to say nothing of the fear of what I would find at home. Someone brought me water; another person advised me to “leave the bastard who treats a woman like that”; the nice boy behind the bar (who, to be fair, had been too busy to notice what was going on in the far corner of his pub in the busiest time of day) offered to phone the police. And I understand their reticence: to intervene invites abuse yourself, and opens the potential of “making things worse”. Which, to be fair, probably would have been the case.
But nothing negates how lonely I felt. The darkness thrives when the light is too frightened to do anything, and it thrived that day.
The lovely woman who stopped in the car park on Thursday may or may not have intervened in that pub on that afternoon a thousand years ago; but she cared enough to stop on Thursday, and she was willing to be a witness to whatever distress I might have been in.
We need to be willing to be witness for each other. Witness to each other’s experiences, holding them as valid and precious. Witnesses to the darkness about which often we can do nothing: only stand up and say, that’s wrong.
Because witnessing brings its own kind of light.