Be a Witness, Not a Judge

pointing finger
pointing finger

I pulled my bike to the side of the road to take a picture of the marquee because it struck me with its wisdom. The words witness and judge carry great heft in the religious and legal arenas. As a mediator, I understood it in the context of conflict. When we face conflict, we naturally seek resolution through an internal justice system. In our minds, we convey our story of pain and sorrow to our imaginary judge. Since that judge sits within self, she is naturally sympathetic and affirms our position, consistently ruling in our favor and affirming our perspective on the dispute. We essentially become the judge in our own case.

Imagine the conversation in your head if you find out your spouse is leaving you unexpectedly. You are indignant! You count and re-count the times you were there for him, the ways you stood by and cared for him, your acts of devotion and compassion. You sift through his presumed acts of betrayal, his callousness and his lack of loyalty. You make your case and, surprise! Your internal judge rules in your favor.

But real life isn’t a court case with winners and losers. Real life is a complex stew of contradictions, perspectives and misinterpretations. In real life, your spouse also has a file full of evidence and a judge in his head that rules in his favor—more times than not.

There is no peace in that struggle. There is only the ongoing embroilment of conflict.

The witness watches from above. She observes the present situation, but she also sees the nuanced past and maybe even a bit of the healed future. She isn’t invested in a judgment to tell her what needs to happen next. She is more concerned with watching, listening and learning than she is with validation or vengeance.

Of course, the same is true when we support others through a conflict. It’s natural to want to “get on board” and call out the injustice when our friends and family are wronged. In so doing, we serve as their judge and perpetuate the story in their head. But we can also just listen, like a witness, to their pain. In doing so, we calm the conflict rather than fomenting it. In the end, hopefully we spread a little peace to the situation and to their spirit.