Nearly every day I use concepts from sociology, psychology, human behavior, and abnormal psychology in my work with the homeless of our community. These disciplines also inform the way I function as a spiritual leader. I believe in what I’ve learned while studying social work at Anderson University. I also recognize that psychology and sociology have their limitations. Over time these disciplines have been the subject of many revisions as new theories and hypotheses have been made known. Some of the concepts we readily accept today may be viewed very differently in the future.
One concept I struggle with is the current usage of term “triggers.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a trigger is a mechanism that releases a process or reaction. I agree with the original use of the word trigger which referred to post-traumatic reactions in which those who experience PTSD would re-experience symptoms that originated with their trauma outside the traumatic event itself. This process involves intense fear and is rapid, unconscious, involuntary, and automatic. These trigger warnings were intended to alert traumatized people, who had experienced rape and sexual or physical assault.
There are have been recent adaptations of the term that dramatically broaden and loosen the definition. Presently the use of the term triggers doesn’t just cover sexual or physical trauma, but also relates to material that is potentially offensive, disgusting, or politically/religiously questionable. This recent adaptation of the term trigger attempts to release people from the responsibility of their actions. At this point a “trigger” could include almost anything that could be a focus of strong emotion or conflict.
This dramatically broader and looser definition is often used as a way to release a person from the consequences of an emotional response. The phrase “You triggered me!” is loaded with permission to shirk full responsibility for one’s actions. One of the widely accepted Judeo-Christian values of our society is knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong. To choose between right and wrong, we use “free will.” Free will means we make decisions without necessity or fate, based solely on our own discretion. We choose between many different alternatives on a daily basis. We can choose different flavors of ice cream. We can choose whether to obey the speed limit. We also choose which emotional response we have to all of the variables we face on a daily basis.
Jesus’ teaches that, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). Similarly, Jesus taught that it was out of the person’s own heart that “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, [and] slander” arise (Mt 15:19). These are not things that God in any context desires, wants, or decides for us. They originate in a person’s own heart.
Poor choices originate in each of us, not in the actions of others and they especially are not pre-decided by God. In fact, God gives us free will choice so that we may freely choose to love him and freely choose to love others. Followers of Christ grow the Fruit of the Spirit in their life as they yield to the Holy Spirit’s direction and guidance. We have a freewill choice to accept or reject the Holy Spirit’s council. Therefore, we make choices that will either grow our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control or stifle it. People, situations, and circumstances cannot steal away our values. We choose our values and our emotions.
It took me awhile to come to the realization that every person doesn’t have the same emotional response to the same situation. One person may be disappointed whereas another person may be relieved. One person may be overwhelmed whereas another person may be exhilarated. One person may be angry whereas another person may feel weary. One person may be depressed whereas another person may be content.
Instead of blaming an emotional trigger, we should admit that there are emotions, situations, and conversations to which we have a difficult time controlling our emotional responses. We must take responsibility for the way we manage our emotions, as opposed to letting our emotions control us. There are going to be some situations, conversations, and people that we must consciously limit our exposure to.
Trauma may bring about images that elicit an emotional response but we can choose which emotion we have. We are not robots nor are we animals purely running on instinct. I heard a sermon years ago that was entitled “Who Is Driving Your Emotional Bus?” The pastor answered her own question with, “You are or you should be.” My prayer for each of us is that we put ourselves in the driver’s seat.