I found this painting of a beggar at the blog site of an artist that I admire. She found it on a rainy day in Narbonne, France where she’s traveling, and wrote:
It is the emotion and compositional strength of this image as well as pure skill in foreshortening that had me coming back to this painting several times. Every centimeter of this canvas is in full use and allows you no room to shrink from the image. The beggar has seen us. We must respond in some way and whatever that way is he and the world will know. It is our human condition we are facing in this painting. (Terrill Welch – Creative Potager)
It struck me how often we are tempted to turn away from images, people, situations, that seem too horrible, too hopeless, that make us feel too helpless to even think about it, let alone do something ourselves to help. Like extreme poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction, rape, human trafficking, mass murder, mental illness . . . the list goes on.
It’s human nature to do so, to turn away from the ugly faces that our human condition sometimes shows us. To pretend it’s not there, or doesn’t affect us, or isn’t us, or won’t be us, or someone we care about, some day.
But it’s important to resist that urge to turn away, even if we have no way to address it. It has to do with what I’ve come to think of as “bearing witness.” It has to do with, not only, bearing witness to an atrocity that should not be forgotten nor repeated, as the holocaust survivors have done, as we’ve come to regard the towers falling on 9/11.
It also has to do with simply being there for another human being in pain, “bearing” that pain with them, in that we acknowledge it and in whatever small way we can show them they are not alone. That we stand with them, if only in spirit, if only in refusing to turn away, to pretend it doesn’t exist, or that they don’t matter.
I’ve found myself returning to this motif in my writing again and again: the need to look, to not turn away; the importance of bearing witness to another’s pain and suffering.
And there are so many other writers and artists and activists who are doing the same thing. Who are refusing to turn away, and instead bearing witness to the pain they see and experience when encountering the dark side of the human condition. As this artist was doing when he painted “The Beggar” so long ago.
Sometimes it’s all we can do to help another. Bear witness. Sometimes it’s all that’s needed.
I feel blessed by the Traversi’s painting. His refusing to turn away, but looking deeply at it, revealing the humanity he saw in the face of suffering, reveals his own deep humanity, and challenges us to do the same.
[This post originally appeared on another site in a slighty longer version]