She looked away and stared out the window, trying to hold back the tears in her eyes. “The tents,” she said and shook her head looking down at the ground. The tears were coming, but softly. I asked her what the tents represent. She shrugged her shoulders and said into the camera phone: “The bodies I guess. They don’t have enough room for the bodies.”
In this time of the coronavirus, as in Italy and Spain, New York City has room neither in the hospitals nor the morgue for the bodies that are dying. Up from 25 a week, to 24 a day, bodies are being buried on Hart Island, or City Cemetery, where the unclaimed and unidentified have been interred for decades. Others are waiting in refrigerated trucks for friends and family members to collect them. This New Yorker along with thousands of others have seen the stark reality, one that left even Trump sick at heart.
We are witnessing a global pandemic. Evidence of the ravages of the coronavirus lies all around us. The response to the virus has made physiological, economic, and psychological impacts on our lives. We have changed our working styles, dealt with lowered income, or lost our jobs. Staying secluded at home, we have taken on new roles for which we were not prepared; many of us have become sick, and some have died. We are together witnessing a major world disaster.
What does it mean to be a witness? What will it mean to carry that witnessing forward to future generations to mark this historic event so that when something like it happens again, future generations will have the tools they need to respond more quickly, adapt more easily, recover more rapidly? For this generation, just as those who researched and learned from the Spanish Flu, we bear witness.
One way that we can learn what bearing witness means is to think of its biblical representation; being close to Easter week prompts a reflection on the Gospel stories of Jesus’s death and resurrection. These accounts amplify the role of the witness through Mary Magdalene. In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the first to go to Jesus’s tomb. Finding it empty, she weeps. Her grieving lasts only as long as she turns to see Jesus, just prior to his resurrection. She is at this moment a first witness to the mystery of the Christian religion.
In the transition from mourning to witnessing Jesus’s resurrection, Mary is asked to do something – that is to bear witness. Jesus asks her to carry to the disciples the news of his ascent to the Father. He invites Mary to honor a loss that has been transformed by speaking its truth, to assure the disciples that out of death has come new life. Mary Magdalene models what it means to bear witness: she sustains and supports a memory; she carries that memory and its image to others. She ratifies a truth, one that may or may not be believed, in the form of an act, a speech act: she tells the disciples that Jesus is resurrected.
Bearing witness is not without its burden: to carry the memory of suffering and to attest to the possibility of its transformation into new life is to face horror even as it is to promise the possibility of change in the face of such horror. Thus, bearing witness is not to alleviate suffering, nor to gloss over the reality of its presence, but to speak of its inevitability with an awareness about how it can be ameliorated.
People around the world are witnessing the coronavirus, marking its effects, making sense of what is happening now and what will happen when this is “over.” People watch and celebrate those on the front lines: nurses, doctors, and EMT workers.
In a next step, memorial and museums workers will bear witness to their memory. But that work starts now. Recently the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C developed a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force: “to react quickly to assess and document the scientific and medical events, as well as the effects and responses in the areas of business, work, politics and culture.” Those that do the collecting and curating of objects and memories consider the impact on individuals, institutions and communities while documenting the wide array of perspectives and experiences that emerge from such a historic moment. Artnet News reports how other museums are doing the same.
The Orange County Museum of Art asked Los Angeles-based sound artist Alan Nakagawa to participate in a project named “Social Distancing, Haiku and You.” The project requires participants to write and then digitally record haikus inspired by experiences endured during this pandemic. To submit a typed haiku and recording of your work (easily achieved on most smart phones or through a downloaded app), email firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for submissions is today, April 16, and the finished composition will be released April 23.
Undertakings to collect, record, and report experiences of the coronavirus are extensive. This is what people who bear witness do. They attest to trauma and its recovery, as Mary attested following Jesus’s crucifixion to a promise: the possibility of new life. This work does not come without a cost, not for Mary Magdalene whom the disciples first doubted, and not for the memory worker who attempts to exhibit the realities of human betrayal and suffering alongside the possibility of hope and joy. Such work can be exhausting.
And yet, the witness does the work of bearing truth, both painful and joyous. Jesus asks Mary to honor a loss that has been transformed, speaking to assure the disciples that out of death has come a new reality. This translates to us now, this act of witnessing, and to my client in New York, who, through her vulnerability and mourning, understands deeply that when this chapter ends, the next will bring new life. And to that chapter she will also bear witness.
Stephanie Arel is currently an Instructor at Fordham University. She holds an Integrative Trauma Certificate, a training in trauma modalities for clinical treatment, from the National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP) in New York, NY and a Certificate in Training for Compassion Fatigue. She has taught courses on human development, trauma, death and dying, violence against women, and faith and critical reason. Her work explores the different ways that people respond to trauma whether they experience trauma firsthand or as a witness. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology. She is currently editing a volume on human dignity and writing a second monograph on the effects of bearing witness to traumatic content on those who work in the field of memorialization: @bearingwitness_nyc