When You Need To Be Seen, This Is What You Need To Know
The stories of other people are always hidden from us at first, waiting in the shadows. They are tentative, skittish things, these hidden tales, frightened of what might become of them if they step out into the light.
So begins Once We Were Strangers, the wise, evocative, true story of an emerging friendship between Shawn, an American writer and Mohammad, a Syrian refugee. It is a reflection on community and difference, needing and being needed. It is a reminder that we are all both the Good Samaritan and the man who needs help. We care for others and at the same time need our own wounds bandaging.
Our stories are what define us. Where we’ve come from, the things that have happened to us, the narrative arc our lives have taken. They hide in the shadows at first because it takes enormous vulnerability to let them into the light. We do so gradually, tentatively. We test the waters, peer out of the shadows, inch slowly forward. What we really want to know, is
Does anyone see me?
Do I really matter?
There’s a strange little story in the Bible of a woman named Hagar. She is a slave, who is pregnant and has been abused, so she’s running away. The Angel of the Lord finds her and asks her where she’s going. She replies that she’s leaving her mistress. The Lord tells her to go back, but not before he speaks to her about the child she’s carrying and gives her a glimpse into her son’s future. Hagar responds by saying, “you are the God who sees me… I have seen the one who sees me” (Genesis 16:6-14).
You are the God who sees me.
The Angel of the Lord found Hagar and asked to hear her story. And when she told it, he listened and validated her. He stood with her in her misery and let her know that she had been seen, that she mattered. He wanted her to know that this wilderness wasn’t going to be the place where her story ended.
David Whyte writes that
The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement… [but] witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them… on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.
To bear witness to each other’s lives is one of the most profound and healing gifts we have to offer. We create safe spaces for people’s stories to emerge when we notice and ask questions, when we give our time and attention, when we respond with empathy. Listening to someone’s story honours their vulnerability in telling it. It shows them: you are seen, you matter.
And when we feel alone in the wilderness and at the end of ourselves, may we be found by the God of Hagar. May we find that we are noticed, understood and cared for by the God who sees us.
You can preorder Once We Were Strangers, by Shawn Smucker, by clicking here.