A hurting world is around us, and we hide behind our freshly decorated walls,
and pretend it does not exist, or that we do not know what it is to hurt.
We are challenged to come out and be without walls.
We are called to intentional, deliberate vulnerability.
The rule of the Northumbria Community
I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them…already noticing my palms starting to sweat, my discomfort becoming more and more apparent.
“What are your triggers?” The therapist calmly asked me again.
I named them. My throat closed in around a consonant….I had to say it twice to get it out.
Shit, I thought, she’s going to notice all of this.
I had been through this before a million times, but it will likely never cease to amaze me how my body seems to have a will of its own when treading into trigger talk.
Trauma does interesting things to our brains. Part of the path of healing involves learning how to rewire our brains from the associations created during the traumatic event. I know rationally, that every businessman I see isn’t going to assault me…but my body has registered that one particular trigger in the part of my brain that alerts my endocrine system to go into hyper-vigilance. This is part of life after an assault.
She went on.
“What do you do to help yourself feel safe when you’re triggered?”
I’ve learned instinctively what to do to keep my body from going into hyper-vigilance: my prayer practices have gone a long way in helping me stay grounded and slow my heart rate (the Jesus prayer in particular setting a rhythm and tactile recitation in motion that has become a huge part of my life), but of particular interest have been the quirky physical things that help:
I’ve noticed a preference for scratchy wool blankets(which I could technically blame my Scottish heritage for), the feeling of isolated muscle exhaustion brought about by a pilates class led by a red-headed-cyborg (It’s just not natural to be that calm in those positions), and oddest of all…my new gloriously hard as hell, you-could-have-just-slept-on-the-floor, mattress.
It turns out that all of these things are part of what therapists describe as keeping the body from disassociation. In other words: by keeping the body slightly uncomfortable it prevents your mind from leaving the present moment and flying back into a flashback of a threat that is no longer happening.* The slight physical discomfort allows us to create new patterns in our brains…in my case: rewiring the appearance of a stereotypical businessman (among other things) to not equate danger.
What is the relationship between discomfort and changing patterns of association and behavior?
As awful as what has happened to me is (and while I certainly won’t stand by and allow sexual violence to continue to be dismissed, ignored, or covered up) I can honestly say that in some ways I’m grateful for what it has done in my life: I’m a different person now….more human somehow.
See, I’m a white, privileged, middle class woman. I thought, as most of us in the white middle class privilege (WMCP) experience that something of this nature would never happen to me. I also thought, as most in the WMCP, that the law would be on my side if it did…that I would be protected and the perpetrator dealt with. The knights would show up, the dragon would be slain, and all would go back to “normal” as “happily ever after”.
I never could have anticipated what it is like to feel that kind of disorientation, fear, and powerlessness. I never could have guessed what it would be like to feel the lack of empathy from lawyers with their probing and insensitive questions, and the bias from well-intentioned friends and family members unconsciously parroting the damaging scripts that our society perpetuates. I wasn't protected, and I didn't feel safe.
In one fell swoop I felt connected to the millions of women who have experienced this type of violence, to the collective pain-body of the feminine. In one fell swoop I experienced a glimpse into what it is like for millions of Americans and immigrants in our country every day: the law isn’t necessarily on your side if you don’t fit the bill, or can’t afford it (financially, emotionally, or otherwise).
In one fell swoop, I toppled from my perch of “comfortable life” and became more united to all human beings who have been taken advantage of, violated, oppressed in any way.
Last week we explored how Teilhard talks about suffering as being the eye of the needle through which evolution mysteriously progresses through. He also views suffering as containing within it a force that hast the potential to change us:
“Suffering holds hidden within it, in extreme intensity, the ascensional force of the world. The whole point is to set this force free by making it conscious of what it signifies and of what it is capable… If all those who suffer in the world were to unite their sufferings so that the pain of the world should become one single grand act of consciousness…of unificiation, would not this be one of the most exalted forms in which the mysterious work of creation could be manifested to our eyes?” (Teilhard, The Hymn of the Universe, 93-94)
Teilhard doesn’t excuse the causes of our suffering. Not one bit. Not even a little.
But this perspective does help us to see that there is a mysterious connection between discomfort and change….and that somehow our suffering has the capacity to wake us up, to shake us out of our isolated thinking and further unite us to each other.
Trauma changed me. It re-wired my brain to begin to understand myself in compassionate connection with the whole. But that whole isn’t one big equal portion of suffering. Yes, we all suffer. But there is a very real disparity among the kinds of suffering and duration of trauma that exists between our races, ethnicities and income brackets in our country:
As a WMCP woman, my trauma event was an exception to the norm of my life. I’ve also had the resources for therapy, the cyborg-led pilates class, and for the hard-as-floor-mattress. I have had the communal, spiritual and emotional support I’ve needed in my recovery.
But who is asking: “what are your triggers?” and “what do you need to feel safe?” to the millions of black Americans and persons of color who are living in sustained trauma every day in our country?
I was out in the mountains of North Carolina at a festival when the murder of Philando Castile and subsequent police shootings took place this summer. I came into my room and caught my roommate Alicia’s agitated frustration as she spoke to the other two girls in the room: “I can’t even call my grandmother to tell her I’m alright…that I’m ok,” she said exasperatedly as she critiqued the absence of cell phone coverage in the area. I was shocked. This tiny glimpse of what its like to be a black American woman had never occurred to me: after the latest in the long string of racial shootings, Alicia needed to reach out to her family to let them know that even though she was in the South and in the mountains of North Carolina, she was ok. Not safe, mind you…because in order to feel safe one needs to know that there is no threat of immediate danger. Alicia just wanted her grandmother to hear her voice, and for her to know that she was ok.
My own trauma has given me a visceral understanding of how my brain will register a lack of protection and control into a primal response to protect myself, and that is only after a single occurrence of trauma. Sustained trauma at this collective level will result in even more collective triggers…triggers that we don’t see, can’t see because many of us in the WMCP experience not only don’t have them…we often are them.
Most of us in the WMCP experience aren’t at all opposed to Black Lives Matter…myself included. I have “supported” the movement in my own WMCP way: I’ve liked and commented on the facebook posts, decried the injustice with everyone else whenever it comes up in conversation. I’ve been horrified by the videos of the shootings and the new reports, like most WMCP. But, like most, I’ve allowed my comfortable life to keep me disassociated from the traumatic reality presently facing millions of Americans. Every day.
I’ve chosen to disassociate and wrap myself in soft blankets and sleep on cushy mattresses: I’ve not allowed the horror I’m witnessing to make sufficiently uncomfortable to want to change my own patterns of unconscious complicit behavior.
Teilhard is right about the potential unifying force of suffering, and in our case (the WMCP for most of whom a trauma event is the exception to the norm of our lives) suffering does carry within it a mysterious potential for unity: it invites us to partner with those in sustained and constant suffering and to begin to place ourselves in the discomfort of being an outsider, to get involved in communities unlike our own, and to truly begin to understand that fighting for the rights of any community is fighting for the future of the whole community.
Modern day philosopher and social theorist Roberto Mangbeira Unger talked about this connection in an interfaith lecture series hosted by the Chautauqua Insititution in 2014, saying that he welcomes the social dislocation caused by civil disobedience and disruption because, “Without trauma there is no transformation.”
Discomfort seems to be a part of catalyzing change. Why? Because it forces us into the present moment, the only place from which we can create new narratives and break out of the old hard-wired realities. It wakes us up enough to see and feel how we are connected, and how safety for one group is safety for all of us. Discomfort breaks us out of the narcissism that lulls us into falsely thinking that we are separate from one another and has the potential to awaken us to the reality that we are an ecosystem…that we are all of us connected, and that there is no “I” only “we.”
On a recent Krista Tippett interview on her show “On Being,” Mahzarin Banaji talked about the neurological relationship between biases and comfort. When Krista asked her how she challenges her implicit biases, Banaji said: I don’t do things without questioning why I do them. If something is comfortable or easy for me, I stop and ask “why?”
She followed this by describing how she loves American Football, but refuses to watch it anymore on account of her moral issue around the brain damage it is causing human beings just to keep us entertained. She changed her patterns of behavior.
What is your version of soft blankets and cushy mattresses…the patterns you participate in daily that are easy and comfortable and keep you asleep?
What if we chose every day to not let the trauma happening in our world make us want to numb out and distract ourselves further with mindless entertainment and disassociate from the suffering around us?
I’m challenging myself to stop my patterns of comfortable denial. My first step out of my comfort is not to just celebrate the diversity that does exist in my world but to intentionally place myself in communities where I am the minority...and to allow the relationships in that context to teach, shape and inform my understanding of how and where I can help. An obvious route for this is, ironically, going to church.
Now, I haven’t belonged to a church or attended church regularly in a long time. I’ve been very comfortable in my millennial none-but-mystically-inclined status of “always dating but never committed” church attendance, and toted my usual critiques of not feeling like I “fit” at any particular church. But that has changed: church is no longer about what it does for me, or whether I like the liturgy and agree with the theology for that matter. Church has ceased being about belonging to ideas, and quite simply become an opportunity to belong to humanity: to partner with those for whom sustained trauma is not the exception to the norm, make their suffering my own, and live life together.
All of us in the WMCP bracket can take one step out of our comfortable routines, consider where we are “numbing ourselves” or living in denial and compassionately explore how changing ourselves is the first step in changing the whole.
Stay alert, evolutionaries. Find your scratchy wool and hard mattresses. Sustain your discomfort long enough to let the present rewire you. You want to participate in evolution?
Want to challenge yourself further?
Take this Project Implicit test to discover some of your unconscious biases. We can't begin to change until we acknowledge the gap between where we really are, and the kind of human beings we'd like to become.
*(not universal, based on extremity and amount of trauma incurred in a lifetime)