As I have been studying Elie Wiesel, I feel even more impassioned about the importance of testimony. Fear, shame, and trauma make us feel that we are alone – but speaking truth and bearing witness brings us into the light and together with others in pain. I believe, as Wiesel does, that it is our duty to give testimony – in this way, we own our own narratives and our stories don’t have power over us. Testimony is spiritually healing and a compassion practice. We find a purpose in surviving our suffering – to cultivate resilience and serve as a source of strength and support for others.
Wiesel asked “Why do I write?… [T]o touch the bottom of madness.” Indeed, if we have the courage to dive into the depths of our psyche, we inevitably confront the shadows that plague us. We have all been touched by darkness; we have all wondered why. Why is there evil? Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God allow this to happen? Why does it happen? Why us? Wiesel said “I write to understand as much as to be understood. Will I succeed one day?” I have often contemplated this very question. I am drawn time and again to the same answer: no, I don’t think I will ever understand the horror and pain and injustice. I’m not sure that I want to. What could possibly justify abuse, rape, war, the Holocaust?
Sometimes I hold in my thoughts and feelings. They cycle repetitively through my mind, and the stress fills my body. As painful as it is to bear internally, it also hurts to externalize through the cathartic practice of writing. Breaking the silence is a purging violence. Weisel noted “It was by seeking, by probing silence that I began to discover the perils and power of the word.” When we actualize our experiences through writing, we can’t hide from the truth. We are faced with our stories, and with them our anger, disgust, fear, pain, resentment, and shame. But, as Weisel observed, there is power in the act of storytelling. And when we have the courage to share, we embolden and inspire others to tell their stories – together, we heal.
“[F]or the survivor, writing is… a duty… I believed that, having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.” When I read Weisel’s words, it reminded me of my activity in a breast cancer support group. I shared my diagnosis, the information from my doctor’s appointments, my progress through surgeries and chemotherapy and medications and hormone treatments, and most importantly my range of emotions – fear to gratitude. I don’t know why this happened to me. I don’t know why I was able to survive when so many others have died from this disease. But I fervently believe, as Weisel does (and fellow Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eva Eger, whose books saw me through the darkest moments of my cancer journey), that there is meaning to be found in this inexplicable experience, and that through writing we may honor the suffering and illuminate the truth.