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Witnessing a Life: Thanks for the Words, Phil Neubauer

Robin Alexander

Posted on April 4, 2019 12:14

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Back in 2002 my journalist friend was asked to give a toast at a wedding he was attending. He wrote something so cogent, insightful and inspiring that one of the guests – who just happened to be Rob Marshall (director of Chicago, Into the Woods, and Mary Poppins Returns) – asked if he could use it in a movie some time or give it away, thus establishing that journalists are not only astute but have a magical way with words. Just saying.

“Sure,” Phil said. Who wouldn’t be flattered? Then, life went on.

Well, two years later, in 2004, my friend’s toast ended up in Shall We Dance. It was not directed by Rob Marshall and so it was re-gifted after all. The movie featured Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon.  The words were slightly revised but the brilliant premise remained intact and was delivered by Susan Sarandon to Richard Jenkins. To this day you can go to youtube and type “shall we dance marriage speech” and up it comes.

Here’s the script, in case you prefer to read.

People marry because we need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet. What does any one life really mean? But in a real relationship, you’re promising to care about everything: the good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things – all of it, all the time, every day. You’re saying “your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed, because I will be your witness.”

I know. Catch your breath.

Note: In 2004 there were actually about 6.5 billion people on the planet. This was part of the rewrite, I assure you.

Fast forward to a few nights ago when I was watching Russian Doll on Netflix, a brilliant series which was inviting me to grapple with all manner of philosophical concepts having to do with human interactions. The main character, Nadia, suddenly says: “How do you know you’re real? … Do you think we need people to be like, witnesses?” I immediately texted my friend.

I think Phil touched on more than he realized. I think this is about more than noticing another person’s life (big enough in itself especially in a world of now 8 billion). I think “witness” also means, “you matter” in the sense that I will testify that you were here because your existence affects me. My changed existence is the testimony; my willingness to allow that change is the gift of witnessing.

And, I believe it applies to every human interaction from a committed relationship, to friendship, to that moment when you look a homeless person in the eye, acknowledging his/her existence.

Suddenly, every encounter is filled with depth and meaning, and what can I say, I’m just high on human interaction philosophy (I just made that up).

Robin Alexander

Posted on April 4, 2019 12:14

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