Review of Triggers: How we can stop reacting and start healing by David Richo
In 2015, I watched a YouTube video of an unhinged Yale mob confronting a professor. One young woman in particular screamed wildly and then stormed away in tears.
The young woman’s distress was palpable, heart-wrenching.
So was the mob’s unreasoning rage toward a professor who was doing his best to be respectful while not bowing to their despotic chaos.
The ugliness erupted over an email about Halloween costumes. Students were worried about costumes that “threaten our sense of community,” that is, racist costumes. Erika Christakis, the associate head of Silliman College (one of Yale’s residential colleges), had sent out a gentle suggestion about having faith in people’s capacity to self-censure, and “to ignore or reject things that trouble you.”
Her words about self-responsibility led to this shocking confrontation.
Over the following months, the Yale administration behaved cravenly. They failed to support Christakis and her husband, the professor featured in the video — whose grace under fire was admirable. (For the whole story, see this article.)
The episode bothered me deeply; Yale is my alma mater. Watching YouTube and then observing the university’s responses, I was repulsed. I vowed, I will never again send money to Yale.
If Yale can’t teach students that the way to handle disagreement is not through name-calling and bullying but through ongoing discussion, Yale isn’t getting my money.
Now I’ll offer the necessary acknowledgements — even though merely asking people to examine themselves is enough, in the current atmosphere, to set me up for cancellation. But here goes, because if I don’t state these truths, some readers will aggressively assume that I am oblivious to them.
Racism is real. It occurs regularly. It is evil and it hurts people. It ruins lives.
Another piece of pertinent information is that I’m a Jew by choice. Through the auspices of ancestry.com and 23andMe, I discovered that I am 1/4 Ashkenazim Jewish by lineage. Unbeknownst to anyone, when I converted decades ago, I was actually returning to my roots.
Tracking back through my newly discovered second cousins, I sussed out that my married grandmother Jenny Maxine Slatton had a fling with a married Jewish soldier named Melvin Weisberg. Melvin was something of a rolling stone. He went to WWII and never returned to the United States. He married for the second time in Paris, and then later walked out on his wife Marie-Louise. In the mid 1960s, while playing poker and selling Encyclopedia Britannica, he took up with a German woman in a little town in Hesse.
I even found Melvin’s last child, my half-uncle, whom I quite like. He’s younger than me and lives in the north of Germany.
Over the course of my research, I also came upon names of Weisbergs murdered at Babi Yar and at Auschwitz. I think they were Melvin’s father’s cousins.
This is a roundabout way of stating that I wouldn’t be happy about anyone dressing in a Gestapo uniform for Halloween.
I would be triggered.
Perhaps, knowing that I was triggered in the very moment it was happening, my awareness would shape my responses to the bastard evil enough, and stupid enough, to put on an SS uniform.
Perhaps I would be able to stand by in Dalai Lama-like peacefulness as some other, less enlightened individual beat the tar out of the guy.
We all get triggered, just as the Yale students in the video were triggered.
When the red mist hits the brain, it’s nearly impossible to take a breath, step back, and open up into curiosity: Why I am feeling this way? What’s going on for me?
David Richo’s wonderful book Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing explores this phenomenon of being triggered, what it’s about, and how to work with it honestly. (Richo, David. Triggers: How We Can Stop Reacting and Start Healing. Shambala, 2019.) He explains that “Sometimes a trigger can be immediate, here and now, with no earlier example of it….Usually, however, a trigger is a replay of an earlier experience.” (Richo, p. 3)
He describes the power of the phenomenon: “A triggering event that is a throwback to an archaic trauma feels like it is happening in the present.” (Richo, p.3) The brain’s amygdala, Richo says, stores the original traumas, and when they are awakened, “triggers today can give us the sense that we are still as powerless as we were in childhood.” (Richo, p.3)
This is an important book for our time. Certain segments of our political zeitgeist have been swallowed whole by the phenomenon of offendedness and its close cousin the victimization sweepstakes. In this arena, being triggered is apotheosized. It has been made a God of and it is elevated like a golden calf above all other values, even free speech, which I cherish.
The lively, unmitigated exchange of ideas, no matter how provocative, is the life blood of freedom itself. For a novelist like me, it is essential.
Uncensored and lively discourse is important enough for me to suggest: if we’re triggered, let’s not shut down the debate. Rather, let’s take self-responsibility. Let’s undertake the grueling work of looking in the mirror and figuring out why we’re having this reaction. Even if the triggering party is completely, 100% in the wrong — there’s still personal work to do.
That personal work is fertile ground. It gives us a way in to our own consciousness, our own transference — the programming that runs us when we like to think we are writing it.
As Richo writes, “Thus, triggers, based on trauma or any distressing experiences, show us where the past invades the present.” (Richo, p. 38)
Exploring this temporal invasion yields insight into the deepest earth of our psyche and the twisty things that grow there in the loamy dark: old wounds, misconceptions, errors in perception, limiting beliefs it would serve us to yank out by the roots.
The first step is to enter into the witness state.
As Richo writes, “Witnessing is the opposite of being triggered… Actually, the trigger — part one of the experience — is indeed instigated by someone else. But our reaction — part two — is our own responsibility and is based on our own past experiences. We are being bullied by our own unfinished business.” (Richo, p. 9)
Richo suggests practices for dropping into the witness state. He suggests focusing on our resilience. We are, after all, far more than the sum of our past wounds. We are anti-fragile. We have the capacity to, as Richo puts it, “gain from our experience and thereby evolve beyond where we were in our pain.” (Richo, p. 38)
I wish the administration at Yale had remembered our innate anti-fragility. What a moment there was at Yale to mentor students into gaining from their experience through self-examination! What a shame that moment was thrown away.
One place to begin our curriculum of evolution, in Richo’s philosophy, is examining the five A’s of human need: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing. These A’s are the foundation of a secure attachment and an ideal early home life. Few of us experienced unqualified perfection with our parents and caregivers. Where we didn’t experience attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing is where there are gaps for hooks to take hold. Those are the chinks in our armor that allow us to be ‘bullied by our own unfinished business.’
The five A’s recur throughout Richo’s beautifully written books. These books are gifts to their readers; they are handbooks to self-awareness. They are kind and they are wise. I’ve blogged before about Richo’s writing. His body of work is fascinating, full of dispensatory teachings. It’s both psycho-spiritual and practical. I’ve learned so much from his book How to Be an Adult that it’s placed conspicuously on the coffee table in my office. (Richo, David. How to Be an Adult: a Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration. Paulist Press, 2018.)
Healing our triggers and growing into maturity are closely related. Their consanguinity flows in self responsibility and the impetus to transformation. It comes down to a personal decision every soul must make. Do we wish to rise above the lowest common denominator of our shared humanity, not because we were born better than, but because we’re willing to look honestly at all the places where we’re terribly messed up?
Are we willing to confront our imperfections and to grow?
I emailed Richo and asked him what he’d like readers to take from this book. He responded, “Our triggers do not have to dominate our feelings. We can learn how to handle them without stress. We can learn from them about our personal issues.”
It’s a question of learning, of willingness to learn.