Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Care and Tending of Triggers

As spring came ringing in on a sweet Saturday, I and my 15 year old drove out into the countryside for a long and bruisingly fun afternoon of paintball.  I love paintball.

Physical, intense, team-based and tactical, I always come away muddy and banged up a bit, with the welts, bruises, and aches that let me know I've spent a good day at it.  It's wildly fun, a veritable hoot, and notable for the appeal to a broad cross section of culture.

It isn't without risk, of course, which is why folks wear the safety gear, and why they make you go through the various safety-checks on the front end.

Because, sure, it's plenty of fun.  But there's also risk involved, as there tends to be with anything--anything at all--that's worth doing.  The paintball marker "guns" fire marble-sized projectiles at several hundred feet per second, and though they burst when they hit you, they sting.  And if you're not wearing eye-protection and covering exposed flesh, they can do more than that.  They can draw blood, or do permanent eye damage.

Thus, the rules, laid out so that the event will be mutually enjoyable and involve no injury.  No firing at point-blank range.  Protective gear on at all times.  Here's how to call for assistance.  Here's how you lock down your marker so that it will not go off in safe-zones.

Keep your muzzle covered.  Keep the safety on.  And if you want to avoid accidentally hurting someone, keep your finger away from the trigger.  "The best way to insure your marker doesn't fire," said the eager young instructor, "is to NOT PUT YOUR FINGER ON THE TRIGGER."

After the day was done, as I felt the lingering ache in my quads from a day of crouching and crawling, I found myself reflecting on the idea of triggers.

"Triggers" are part of the lingo these days, the strangely calculated language of trauma, umbrage, and offense.  People have their "triggers," things that send them on wild and involuntary cascades of emotive response, overwhelmed by old unhealed hurts and wounds that lead them into bitter places.  We put up "warnings" that things might be "triggers," which seems--frankly--more like a way of advertising something guaranteed to get folks angry.

I have my own triggers, of course.  There are places I've been wounded or humiliated or helpless, or when a thing/relationship/person I loved was harmed.  In those "trigger" moments, there were people and patterns of behavior in place that can be mirrored in other life situations.  Someone can look or act in a way that reminds me of a person who done did me wrong,  Off I go.   Or an event can be going down in a way that reminds me of another time, when things went south.  Click.

When that memory-burned reaction is triggered, I can feel the urge to respond in ways that are neither gracious nor realistic, that have more to do with an old learned reflex than any real thing.

I can't change those things.  I have no control over when those outside events happen.  I just don't.

But that doesn't render me helpless.  Assuming that creates a spiritual danger.

If I believe the world must never, ever, set me off, and that it is the responsibility of other persons not to set me off, I have functionally declared: I am no longer a person.  My God-given personhood, I am saying, is subordinate to a set of reflexive emotive responses that have everything to do with context and nothing to do with me.  I am not free to choose how I react, and in the absence of that agency, I am not really a being with free will and the capacity to choose.

I become a switch, a binary thing, under the control of the Other.  I cease to be moral.

But I am that trigger.  It belongs to me, because it is me.  As such, I am responsible for how I respond when it is actuated.  More than responsible.  I have authority over it.  I have an ethical duty to deal with it appropriately relative to my whole-life commitments.  And I figure, if we're using a metaphor, we can extend it a wee bit.

I keep the safety on.  Meaning, sure, the trigger is there, but most of the time, I've locked it down with other parts of myself.  There are parts of me...those oriented towards radical compassion, that understand context, that can reason and see beyond the moment of that "click."  Those are my safety.  They are stronger than the trigger, and unless all systems are go and I give that trigger permission to work, it can't result in anything.   The trigger doesn't get to make the final decision about whether I let fly.  It is not my whole self.   Switching off that multi-switch safety requires intentionality, which requires thought, which generally de-triggers the trigger.  So to speak.

And I keep my own finger off the trigger, because more often than we'd like to admit, "triggered" responses involve our own finger, pressing down.  We assume attack is coming, at any moment, from any angle, and if we are always on, always looking for a potential assailant?  We're going to go off.  Our finger, on that trigger, because damned if we're going to get caught out again.  Trauma does that, turns on the fight or flight, and won't shut it off.  I work under the assumption: I could hurt someone if I'm not careful.

Knowing our triggers really, really helps, if we're not going to make the world a more pain-filled place.