Holding steady when the ground is moving is normally part of my stock-in-trade. People often ask me for something to help put their own fears into perspective. Usually I am willing and able to oblige. Mostly I try my best to see the bigger picture, and mostly that effort pays off.
But not now. I was staying more or less centered until a few days ago when something caught me off-guard. In the middle of a conference call, I got a text message carrying information that turned out not to be true, that the Barcelona terrorist who mowed down 13 lives like grass had been heading for a kosher restaurant on Las Ramblas, hard by the assassin’s abandoned car. It was an intense activation, hard to control despite my wish to hold to decorum, despite the fact that everyone on the call had been talking about their fears for their own communities’ and others, their responses to the nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville and the havoc they wreaked. When I rang off, a bit of research led me to conclude that the location of the car was likely a coincidence, that even though ISIS hates Jews, the attack did not target us directly.
Ashamed, I apologized to my colleagues for spreading false information, then gave myself a talking-to. Oh, crap! I’m triggered again, and not only that, but right now I am super-susceptible to recurrence.
I borrowed the title of this series from a shrink who offered it as a way to call in the awareness and acknowledgement that start to diffuse reactivity. You know what I mean by reactivity? I’m talking about that rush of terror or fury or both that overwhelms brain and body when something pokes its finger into an old wound, flooding the inner world with elicited memory, elicited pain.
Do you want to know why I was so easily and massively triggered by a stray rumor? Let me suggest four readings. First: Eric Ward’s important essay “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.” This piece was written by a non-Jewish African American who has studied and worked against white supremacist movements for many years. He exposes in detail how “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism,” how it is the cornerstone of their racist ideology, and how this is often neither understood nor believed despite ample evidence.
I read Ward’s piece when it was first posted to Political Research Associates’ site at the end of June, six weeks before white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, VA, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” inspiring one of their number to use his automobile as a weapon, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring others,.
When you’re done with “Skin in The Game,” read “Jewish Fear, Love, & Solidarity in the Wake of Charlottesville” by Jonah S. Boyarin, published on the Jewschool site a few days after the events in Charlottesville. Among many other closely observed depictions of fear, love, and solidarity, Boyarin writes:
Jewish fear is the recurring silence from non-Jews about the explicitly, particularly antisemitic language and behavior of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. It is seeing, with rare exceptions, only Jewish friends of mine posting on social media when Jewish cemeteries are vandalized or when the Boston Holocaust memorial was destroyed this week for the second time this summer.
Jewish fear is if we bring up our struggle to non-Jewish comrades, we will be gaslighted and shamed into silence, because structural antisemitism functions by portraying us as conspiratorially, greedily powerful despite our repeated vulnerability to structural, white Christian male violence.
Third, read Michael Chabon’s and Ayelet Waldman’s “Open Letter to our Fellow Jews,” enacting our tradition and imperative to rebuke injustice within our community:
Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.
Finally, if you have the bandwidth for one more, read Danica Bornstein’s account of struggling to reconcile two identities, the provisional social category of whiteness and her lived experience as a Jew:
What I’m trying to say here is that the privilege that accrues during the good times is very much real, and I am not denying or hiding that. It is also true that the privilege is provisional, and can be revoked, and becomes the very thing that is used against us when the shoe finally drops.
It overwhelms me trying to explain this history and how both of these things live inside my body: the very real privilege but also the very real and repeated experiences of expulsion, scapegoating, genocide, and terror. I talk about the part that is easier, but then I end up feeling very alone.
None of these writers is identical to each other in approach, style, content, or the way they position themselves in the story, but they are all telling parts of a meta-story that has shaped my experience.
In the context of this big story of Jews in the USA, when I tell myself, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” I am reminding myself that despite the intense feelings I’m experiencing, I’m not truly in it alone. I’m reminding myself that I’m not alone despite the fact that so many of my colleagues on the U.S. left are quite happy to hang a label reading “white” around my neck and never hear another word about why that might not sum up the experience of disbelonging for a first-generation American whose earliest memories were explanations in halting English of why I had so few living ancestors and so little knowledge of those who had survived, and of being chased home by Catholic kids when they got to the part in catechism about Jews killing Jesus, and whose recent memories are crowded with experiences of being an acceptable target, a handy “buffer group” for multiple racial categories.
I’m reminding myself that even if I am once again attacked from both right and left for having the audacity to take the space to tell this story and the willingness to risk this self-exposure, I am not alone.
And why must I remind myself so insistently of this truth? The trajectory of all traumatic activation is the same. The person who is triggered is propelled toward extreme isolation, often into an intolerable loneliness that obscures or precludes the actual antidote to white nationalism: connection, reciprocity, collaboration, respect, generosity across lines of difference.
From what I see, my story rhymes with much of the current state of things. The white nationalists gathering in Charlottesville, Boston, and many other places overwhelmingly share certain characteristics: pale skin, male gender, Christian heritage. None of these is intrinsically the generator of evil, but the giant chickens of power and domination their possessors have birthed have been marching home to roost for a long time, lusting to punish the rest of us for daring to live our freedom. In the face of this long march, so many people I know are displaying the signs of extreme reactivity grounded in trauma: believing the inner voice that says no one else can know my suffering, no one is truly on my side, I can’t trust anyone who fits different categories of race, religion, gender, orientation, even generation. So many are locked in just this combat with would-be allies: whose perspective matters? Who has earned the right to have a say? Who understands the urgency and seriousness of the threats? Who has the capacity or right to glimpse what it is to live inside my skin?
What do you do when elicited trauma pushes you into a dark corner? For me, many things can help in the moment. Music, a walk, or a distraction—anything that disrupts reactivity long enough to allow the fear chemicals to dissipate.
But you know what helps me the most? When compassion opens a door between my heart and another person’s; when neither of us needs to slot the other’s story into a hierarchy of oppressions, judging if it deserves equal dignity or goes on the dismissible pile. When we hear each others’ stories without turning away, when we open our arms to each other. When we join together to rebuke injustice and call in the beloved community.
I’ve been thinking about trauma a great deal over the past year because it is one of the subjects of my current book-in-progress. Even if it weren’t, I’d still be thinking about trauma today because laying fresh damage on the site of old wounds seems to be our national pastime. Every day, I have to remind myself to stay aware enough to say, “Oh crap! I’m triggered again,” because without that awareness, the past prevails.
When I am triggered, my capacity for rational thought is greatly diminished. This is bad news not only because of the immediate suffering it catalyzes, but because the thing that helps me most to release trauma-induced reactivity is staying aware that I am activated. Keeping part of my thinking mind free to be an observer allows me to begin distinguishing past from present. I begin to remember that the loud voice in my head—the one telling me I’m all alone in an uncaring world and they want to kill me—is not the voice of reality, the objective truth, but the over-amped voice of old pain.
My grip on my composure remains tenuous. In Shabbat services yesterday morning, we talked about the Torah portion for this week, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17). A short way into the text, we read this exhortation about how to treat the conquered who worshipped false gods: “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”
Aha, I thought, the Confederate statues! You get to a fresh start by wiping out the symbols of an abhorrent belief system. My mind reeled into the slam dance that’s been playing over and over on my inner soundtrack. But wait, that’s what ISIS leaders thought they were doing when they demolished the Bamyan Buddhas! (See this compendium of pictures and links for images of that and many more examples of monuments toppled). On the one hand crashes headlong into on the other hand. Both tumble into the mosh pit of my brain. I try to blink back the tears and steady my breathing, knowing that unless I can resolve this state of hyper-susceptibility, I will be cycling through that dance every day, perhaps every hour.
Coming next in the “Oh Crap! I’m Triggered” series: Free Speech Slamdance.
Odetta and Dr. John, “Please Send Me Someone to Love.”
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