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The importance of witnesses

June 24, 2011

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been the maid of honor at two weddings. At the second of the two, I was charged with writing a speech, something about which I felt truly humbled—because maid of honor speeches are different from best man speeches: they are not intended to elicit embarrassed laughter, but sincere tears.

At the time, the bride and groom and I and the rest of the wedding party were all young, in our early thirties. No one in the party was yet married, but a few of us, including me, had serious partners, although the stress of traveling together to a wedding in France was hastening the end of what I think my boyfriend and I both sensed was a dying relationship. At the time I composed the speech, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about my own romantic future. I was chafing against my friend’s overblown expectations for my duties as maid of honor, as much as I wanted to please her. And I was acutely aware of the hype and posturing coming from all sides surrounding the wedding itself, a wedding that was an expensive indulgence of all my friend’s fantasies, from the setting to the dress to the food and beyond. Brides are traditionally supposed to be indulged; I knew that. But I also knew that whatever I wrote and read out loud to all her friends and family had to transcend the hype and be sincere, so I would need to reach past the mild distaste I was feeling for the way she was approaching her wedding, and also past my own dissatisfaction, to find something universal and true beyond the cliches.What I came up with is the importance of having witnesses in our lives.

We start our lives with brains incapable of remembering; our parents and guardians are our sole witnesses, and the stories they tell about us become our acquired memories as we hear them repeated over and over. Later we develop the capacity to experience the neurological phenomenon of memory, but still our lives as young children are largely circumscribed by our parents. Adolescence marks the first real break, when we make our own friends and have the autonomy for the first time to experience deviance to one degree or another; secrets become important, and so does the witnessing of our peers, complicit in our adventures. The very act of a wedding is a huge witnessing event, and the guests, by their presence, traditionally at least, also make an implicit vow to help the bride and groom remember the seriousness of their promises and the magnitude of their public commitment.

I spent a lot of time in college studying the Existentialists, who believed, among other things, that it is fundamentally impossible to know any truth beyond one’s own personal sensory experiences and psychology. I’m greatly oversimplifying, but they believed that humans are always alone, and that all morality can be reduced to the drive for self-preservation. Their theories fit nicely at the time with my study of evolutionary ecology, and I still believe in the Existentialists’ psychosocial ideas about choice and responsibility. But I also know emotionally, after 42 years on the planet, that all the isolation can’t be completely true, because the witnesses in my life have made beautiful things more beautiful, sorrow survivable, and mundane experiences into memories. The right companions—witnesses—create shared truths where there were none before. A simple idea, but one that I sometimes lose from day to day.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. THeresa permalink
    June 27, 2011 3:28 pm

    And the more you witness the closer you become. The interesting part is how different our witnessing. It says a lot about a person to hear how they witnessed the same event. It’s a great social exercise.

    • Darcy permalink*
      June 28, 2011 10:18 pm

      Yes, it is interesting to think about how we can witness the same event but perceive it differently. This just lends more evidence to the Existentialists’ argument that we can never really know any truth outside our own individual consciousnesses. Perhaps we value witnesses in part because they are a hedge against the existential dread of ultimate isolation.

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