Trigger Warnings

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​We look to the Gospels for encouragement, hope, and comfort. But as we read the New testament, we will see that not everything that Jesus has to tell us is all that comforting. Take for example, the Beatitudes. In the Orthodox Church we’re most familiar with the version of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, that’s the one that we sing most Sundays of the year. There’s another version of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Luke that reads a bit differently:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:20-23)

That doesn’t sound all that different from Matthew’s version, but then in Luke, Jesus goes on with the following:

​But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26)

The New Testament is full of warnings and admonitions like the verses above. Some today might suggest that such passages should come with what are known as trigger warnings. For those who’ve never heard of them, trigger warnings came out of college campuses. The idea is that, if you’re going to offer information to your students that might make some of them feel bad, you should warn them ahead of time. Trigger warnings are inspired by a modern culture that holds the sentiment of feeling good, especially feeling good about yourself as the highest human value. This is not the first culture to do so and it won’t be the last, but it’s our culture so we have to address this.

What we feel has become more important than what we know. Feelings have taken precedence over facts. I’m a big fan of Star Wars, but I know that (trigger warning!) it’s just fiction. In the real world you cannot “trust your feelings” to be correct all of the time. Last week in his blog Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Steven Freeman posted an article titled, “Why how you feel is not all that valuable.” Here’s a short excerpt:

​We live in a culture of strong feelings. How we “feel” about something is generally taken to mean “what I believe.” This is not at all the case… Sentiment is a function of the passions, and rather shallow passions, at that. It is a disposition towards pleasure..

A little later on Fr. Steven writes:

In a culture driven by consumption, sentiment is a disposition nurtured and manipulated by those who seek to sell us things. They do not sell sentiment. Rather, they use sentiment to sell products. Sentiment is far more malleable than deeply held beliefs, or a true way of life.

​Our feelings can be manipulated. It happens every day in by the news media and in advertising. And this is why in Eastern Orthodox spirituality we say that we can’t base our faith, our spiritual life, primarily on what we’re feeling. Feelings can be misleading, and they can take us in some very unhealthy directions.

It should not come as a surprise to us that researchers and clinicians are seeing the trigger warnings are doing more harm than good. An article in the August, 2018 edition of Psychology Today pointed out that trigger warnings encourage ways of thinking that therapists try to discourage in their clients.

There are times when having our anxiety triggered is exactly what we need. It’s been said that the purpose of the Gospel is twofold: it comforts the afflicted, and it afflicts the comfortable. Christ’s Gospel is a message of hope and encouragement. It is also an honest assessment of the world and of the human condition that pinpoints why we need all of that hope and encouragement in the first place.

Just because something is triggering discomfort in me does not necessarily mean that I should avoid it at all costs. It may be exactly what I need to hear. Think of the story of the Rich Young Man in the Gospels. He comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to have eternal life. Jesus outlines the commands: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, love your neighbor as yourself.

“Good!” the man says, “I’m doing all of that.”

Then Jesus says that there is one more thing he needs to do, one thing he’s lacking. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor, and become a disciple. Immediately the man became very sorrowful; he turned his back and walked away. What Jesus told him triggered the man’s fear of losing his riches. Because this man acted on that fear, he denied himself salvation.

Very soon we’re going to start the Triodion, the liturgical cycle of Great Lent that begins with a series of preparatory Sundays and concludes with Holy Week. As we look at themes and readings of the Triodion, we will discover that they are full of triggers… and that’s the whole point! Great Lent is a season that pushes us, prods us, into taking a searching and fearless assessment of the Three A’s: our Actions, our Attitudes and our Appetites.

During Great Lent, and anytime of the year for that matter, if we read something in the Bible, or in the Fathers, or in any of the prayers of the Church, that leaves us feeling ill-at-ease, the first thing to do is not close the book. The first thing to do is try to figure out what this is triggering in me, because that’s going to teach me something about myself.

The true and living God is the God who does not always agree with us. He is the God who will challenge us, so that we can have true and lasting joy in his kingdom. We don’t need the illusion of happiness that we get from being trapped in an echo chamber of feel-good sentiment. We need the truth, the truth that will set us free… regardless of how that truth is going to make us feel. ☦

Excerpt of a sermon delivered at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fort Wayne, IN, on Sunday, February 3, 2019. An audio recording is available on the St. Nicholas Church website.

Why how you feel is not all that valuable, by Fr. Steve Freeman

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