Trigger (n): a stimulus such as a smell, sound, or sight that gives rise to feelings of trauma.
I hate the local news. I hate learning stories of muggings and car crashes that happen in my city or in the cities of people I love. I hate turning on the television to see shocking headline after shocking headline. And that’s just at the local level.
At the national level, an executive order is signed at the blink of an eye and tweets are being unleashed like rapid fire. There are scandals and bombings and bans and walls and missiles and shootings and–
Many people have chosen to exercise self-care by staying away from the news. I have even chosen to exercise self-care in this way from time to time. All of the noise can be overwhelming and anxiety inducing, and the best survival strategy sometimes looks like putting up a hard boundary from the stressor. Others have chosen not to listen to the voices of specific politicians. Voices that boast about “grabbing pussy,” that call people “the blacks,” and that vilify religions rooted in peace and love are voices that have become traumatic triggers for many people–particularly for marginalized groups.
As necessary as self-care is, I tend to wonder if it is sometimes used as a mask to disguise discomfort. I wonder if “trigger” is sometimes used as a cover for willful avoidance.
Avoidance Is A Luxury
I would be lying if I told you that I don’t breathe an audible sigh of relief whenever I’m able to shut out the noise. When I turn off the TV and silence the story of the drunk driving accident on Highway 101, it ceases to exist for me. It no longer affects me. It does, however, still affect the driver and the people involved in the accident. It affects the family and friends of those injured or killed. Some would say that I’m lucky to be able to easily turn away from news like this. But I say I’m not lucky; I’m privileged.
In many other ways, I am not privileged. In many other ways, I do not have the privilege of being able to avoid the sad and messy realities of the world. I do not get to pretend certain issues don’t exist because the reality of being black in America is that my life and my skin are constant issues that I do not have the luxury of avoiding. When people choose to not talk about race because it’s an “uncomfortable topic” or one in which people “become hostile,” I think of the constant state of discomfort I live in just by walking around in my God-given skin. I think of the amount of times that I suffer silently through aggressions at both the micro and macro level–both of which are oozing hostility–lest I appear too angry, overly sensitive, or like I can’t “take a joke.”
When a person who doesn’t have my skin tells me that they can’t bring themselves to look at the videos of Philando Castile’s last moments or to read the details of Charleena Lyles’ murder, I want to understand; I really do. I want to be able to tell them I understand that it’s too gruesome for them to see. I want to tell them that they should do whatever is necessary to stay emotionally safe. But a bigger part of me wonders why they are allowed to feel safe while I live in fear and anxiety. Self-care is real and freeing and necessary, but avoidance is not. Avoidance is a privilege. And try as I might, in issues of race–specifically surrounding the black community–it is a privilege that I simply do not have. The same is true for individuals in other marginalized populations.
I stand firm in the idea that not everything that is uncomfortable or upsetting or even sickening is considered a trigger. For instance, news of gay men being tortured and killed in Russia surely makes me sick to my stomach, but I, Suzanne Munganga, am not a gay man. I have not experienced the physical and/or emotional traumas gay men face. To cry “trigger” when I am not even a member of this oppressed group could easily be insensitive and insulting. Whether I want to believe it or not, the heteronormativity of this world is ideal for a straight, cisgender person like myself. I have never been traumatized based on my sexual orientation or expression. So rather than cry “trigger,” why don’t we just call it what it is–avoidance, which as we learned earlier, is a privilege. And in this situation, it is a privilege that I very much possess.
That being said, there are always nuances, right? Nothing is ever as cut and dry as we like to believe. Sometimes, there are actual triggers. Some of us have actually been harmed and even traumatized by individuals in an oppressed group. I have personally been deeply wounded by a person within the LGBT+ community, and I don’t know if that is a wound that will ever fully heal. But am I to then avoid anything or anyone with ties to the LGBT+ community? Do we attribute individual muggings and bombings to specific racial or religious groups as a whole? Is it not the individual person or traumatic event, as opposed to the larger community, that we fear and/or want to avoid?
Brains are complex, and trauma isn’t controllable (and if you do find yourself needing help, therapy can work wonders in dealing with trauma and triggers–real or perceived). But crying “trigger” cannot be used an excuse to avoid an oppressed group or the issues of that group. The oppressed have been the ones on the front lines. The oppressed are often triggered by oppressors daily, and the oppressed have literally no choice but to do it again the next day. If the objects of the trauma rarely get to cry “trigger” in these situations, why should anyone else?
Comfort Perpetuates Oppression
Desmond Tutu was wise in saying the following: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Comfort at the expense of another is not only a show of privilege, but it is a segregating act. It maintains that the low remain low and the high remain high. In other words, the oppressed are still oppressed while the privileged hold on to a sense of comfort.
We’ve thought about this from a local level and from a national level, but what if we think about this from an celestial level? To use a phrase that many Christians are familiar with, what if we think about this with a “Kingdom of God” lens?
“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:29-30, NIV)
The last will be first, and the first will be last–this is not a punishment and reward, but rather, a description of justice and equity. If you’re asking yourself what can be gained from subjecting yourself to violent, upsetting, and disturbing words and/or imagery, you are asking the wrong question. The point is not to gain, but rather, to lose. There is no high comfort and low oppression in the Kingdom of God. Instead, the high become low. The comfortable get a little uncomfortable. This is the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God starts right here, right now.