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Ariel Burger & Cleary Vaughan-Lee: Becoming and Witnessing in These Tumultuous Times


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Nuggets From Ariel Burger & Cleary Vaughan-Lee's Call

Last Wednesday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Ariel Burger & Cleary Vaughan-Lee.

How do stories shape what we witness, and how does witnessing shape the stories we live by? What do we need to "unlearn" to become a powerful witness? Join us in conversation with Rabbi Ariel Burger and Cleary Vaughan-Lee about the power of being a witness in these tumultuous times. Rabbi Burger is the founding director of The Witness Institute, a new project inspired by the life and legacy of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel to empower emerging leaders. His mission "is to help counter superficiality with nuance, to replace estrangement with encounter, and to empower people to be creative and kind citizens of the world." Cleary Vaughan-Lee is executive director of the Global Oneness Project, a free multimedia education platform which provides award-winning films, photography, and essays with companion curricula for classrooms, in order to plant seeds of resilience, empathy, and a sacred relationship to our planet in education.

Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...

  • Ariel: My teacher Ellie Wiesel really emphasized the concept of witness. It was one of his central words. He had several words that were at the center of his life and his work—memory, friendship, the theme of fire, the theme of night, and witness. And witness was perhaps the most important. And the starting point for me for any conversation about becoming a witness or defining a witness—what is a witness’s role—is something that he said year ago in class. In class, he said, “The opposite of a witness is a spectator.” The witness is therefore defined by a sense of being implicated and touched by events, things that are happening in the world, even if they are far away, even if they don’t touch me directly in any material way, will touch me in some profound way. I will feel what is happening in the world, and when I experience even from a distance something that is happening, I will internalize it. And I will feel a responsibility to respond. And I will be thoughtful about my response. And so there is something about the shift from being a spectator, passive, quiet, engaged in quietism, allowing things to happen and feeling unmoved to being a witness who is deeply implicated and feels things deeply, and allows one’s self to feel things deeply, and allows the armor to drop. There is something in that process that I think we need as a society and really in humanity as a whole today.
  • Ariel: One of the most moving concepts that emerged is that vulnerability itself is the greatest weapon that we can use if we have the courage. What does it mean to no longer be a spectator? To allow the armor to drop in a way that does not lead me towards despair but towards hope, motivation and action. To make that move one of the key things is story and storytelling from being passive, untouched, unmoved and armored up to being responsible and called upon to respond that to me is what it means to be a witness.
  • Cleary: When the armor is released there is a very uncomfortable feeling. I sit with different parts that come up. I encourage everyone to listen to this beautiful interview with Resmaa Menakem. He beautifully depicts that 14 generations — that’s what we carry with us, 14 generations of memory in our bodies. What I was paying attention to was what can we do now? When we are sitting with an uncomfortable not knowing — that’s the place to start. It is this very uncomfortable feeling and sitting with that. Not trying to move on or trying to move to quickly to being positive, but just sitting with it.
  • Cleary: Robin Wall Kimmerer says this so beautifully in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: "If one tree fruits they all fruit. There are no soloists. Not one tree in the grove, but the whole grove, not one grove in a forest, but every grove all across the county, all across the state. The trees act not as individuals but as a collective. Exactly how they do this we do not know, but what we see is the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. Our flourishing is mutual."
  • Ariel: The Man Who Has Many Answers is one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver — the man who has many answers is often found in the theaters of information where he graciously shares his findings, The man who only has questions to comfort himself makes music. We’re very quick to jump to answers in the face of a complicated problem. We jump to policy solutions without thinking that perhaps we need poetry or dance to respond to human rights abuses. All begins with curiosity, openness and questioning.
  • Ariel: I think about the difference between memory and trauma--we want to transmit memory; we don't want to transmit trauma. It all has to do with how am I holding the story as I tell it, as I transmit it.
  • Ariel: How do I transform trauma into memory? The best way that I can heal my own trauma is to be there for someone else in their healing and to recognize the power of friendship and deep, rich authentic alliance across difference. Finding a way to be mirrors for one another, to de-center ourselves and allow ourselves to be of service to others, that is where the most profound healing I’ve experienced has taken place. This moment offers us tremendous opportunities for growth and healing. We can do this if we don’t fall asleep again. We’ve been sold all kinds of armor for much of our lives. We’ve also especially in this community had exposure to people who are dedicated to opening their hearts. I know all of you are living that path and that is an amazing strength. To me the question is how to organize that community explicitly around the theme and mission of opening hearts.
  • Cleary: I recall this quote from Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States: "I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own." I don't know about everyone out there, but sometimes have you ever been with a friend or seen someone walking down the street and can just immediately visualize what this person looked like as a child? And I've been thinking about that lately, especially in times of friction if someone may be doing an action that I don't agree with, I visualize them as a child. Somehow I become a little softer in that moment.
  • Cleary: Stories have this capacity to open us as people. Like the beautiful quote Anne read from Madeleine L'Engle, stories make us more compassionate, more loving people. And this is the work I have been doing for the last 7 years is really to bring global cultures alive in classrooms and into students' own worldviews, so those misconceptions and those sterotypes can be challenged, and they have that capacity to see from a wider perspective.
  • Cleary: What is culture? The Latin root of culture is cultus, which means to care. And that says it all for me. How can we care more deeply about the cultures of the world to break this barrier, to open our own hearts, and then to live from that place of openness. That is why I'm really drawn to highlighting these stories of humanity and embedding these themes of resilience and identity and adversity. So that students can then challenge those qualities within their own lives. The stories are really just a foundation. They are really just a way to kickstart that exploration within themselves...It is a way for students to sit, if they can, with the uncomfortable emotions of grief and anger and loss, but also ones of joy, perseverance, and resilience. That they all go together, that nothing is separate. But there is a way through. For me, personally, it is really love that is the constant. It is the one thing that will remain forever, that strikes a chord in all of us. In the communication, in the writing, in the choosing of these stories if it doesn't hit the note of love, then that note won't resound.
  • Ariel: [after numerous technical difficulties] When something mediocre is going on, everything runs smoothly. When something really awesome and important is happening, there are a lot of obstacles.
  • Ariel: One of the core questions I asked is where do ferocity and tenderness come together. I lived with that question for months, until I was giving a workshop, and in the back of the room there was a woman holding a baby and that was the answer to my question, that is where ferocity and tenderness come together. When you have something very precious in your arms that you are responsible for, for holding and for nurturing, you are filled with tenderness, your heart opens up, but you will also do whatever it takes to protect that baby, to protect that precious life. And there is a ferocity in that, that is very honest, and very primal, and can go really far. That is the place for me where those two energies comes together. I have a feeling that the world is a baby that we are holding, and it is so precious and so fragile and so vulnerable and so hurting. And we are holding it in our arms. The world is a baby that we are holding in our arms. And if we become aware of that, I think it is the reality. We can ignore it or pretend, but that is the reality. When I think about that when I visualize that, I'm filled with tenderness and I'm filled with a sense of ferocity. And I have much more energy to go and do good things, or to try at least to make a difference. And I'm much less likely to fall in despair or loneliness or my own smallness because I'm really stepping up for this precious life for which I'm responsible.
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!


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