Several years ago an acquaintance passionately informed me he’d never seen any footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center towers on September 11th. The way he phrased it felt almost like he was bragging, like he’d been so incredibly values-driven when he quickly turned away from the news or websites before he saw a single solitary image of the destruction, the debris, the smoke, and like maybe everyone should have done the same so as to send a message to the media that we didn’t need to see their grief porn.

I’ve seen this mentality expressed since, although not quite so eye-rollingly (seriously, I call 100% bullshit on someone never seeing any images from 9/11. I just don’t think it’s physically possible unless you live in a cave): some folks seem to think there’s something a little wrong with seeing the images that come from a tragedy.

I recently saw someone’s explanation for why she chose to view that elevator footage of Ray Rice viciously punching his then-fiancee. “To bear witness,” she wrote. I’m paraphrasing, she probably said something more eloquent, but that was the gist of it. I agree with that, overall. For me personally, I sometimes feel the need to see something to understand it, to empathize, and in some cases, to share the pain in some tiny way. It was like how I felt about Wave, the book that so thoroughly broke my heart — I felt there was value in the fact that I could absorb her story. So I could … I don’t know. It’s like, they had to experience it, the least I can do is listen/read/look.

Of course, not everything needs to be seen. (That beheading video. I’d like a do-over on my decision to click play on that.) Some tragedies are completely private and should always remain that way. And it’s intensely personal, the choice to bear witness in whatever way you feel is appropriate. I don’t think you get points for turning away, nor do you for staying present. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that it happened in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about this tangly topic lately because I started training for a volunteer job with a local program. Their mission, as described in their literature, is to help lessen the trauma experienced by child victims of abuse who are going through the judicial process. As a victim advocate, I’ll be helping support the children and families when they come into the center, and provide them with information and referrals to agencies that can help them legally, financially, mentally, and/or physically.

I imagine this is going to be a really tough job that is all about bearing witness to things I’d rather not think about. During training last week, we saw photos and videos that made me inch backwards in my chair and rub my forehead. I don’t want to be faced with the reality of what happens to these kids (700 per year just in our county), but it feels important. It feels like something I can do, and maybe even (hopefully) eventually be good at doing it.

But I wonder about the weight of it, over time. Maybe not even so much the things that crack you open with sadness and empathy, but the things that make you despairing and jaded. Will I begin to believe there is more awful than good in this world? Or will I find solace in the many people who work so hard to help?

Remember that Mr. Rogers quote that people tend to share during times of national tragedy: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”? I feel like this job will teach me to focus on seeing — and being — the helper. But I worry a little that it may also teach me to see the scary, everywhere I look.


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