I experienced substantial trauma early in life. Piecing together the few memories I have of those times has produced a skeletal narrative, one that has frequently frustrated me. From time to time, mild side effects of what is probably PTSD crop up. Sometimes I experience spontaneous panic attacks that mercifully subside quickly but since that time, I’ve always been unusually highly-strung and jumpy. Fortunately, each of these symptoms has its life-cycle, from start to finish. Until the past few days, I could always count on them to be temporary.
Saturday afternoon I watched a movie, alone in my apartment. The theme was innocuous enough, one of those black and white film noirs full of witty dialogue, dames, and a rapidly unfolding mystery. Before I knew it, and all at once, I was experiencing substantial psychological pain. Dealing as I do with depression, which is to say regularly, I knew this wasn’t it. I felt dirty and anxious. My hands shook for hours. For most of a day, I was not a sexual being. The very thought of sex in any form with any person disgusted me.
Taking all of this in, I thought to myself, this sounds like something a rape survivor would say. And then I realized, I AM a rape survivor. And I may never know what produced this response. It could have been a subtle thing like certain sounds or even the way a room was lit on the set of the movie. The cause could be one of ten-thousand things, which is one of the most exasperating things of all. During this experience, one is not in control of one's body or one's brain. Subtle and unsubtle reminders of this lacking on your behalf show up as uninvited guests.
I had read the symptoms of what I was now experiencing a time or two before, but without direct experience, I could have never prepared for it. I used to say that I wanted to remember it all. Now I’m not so sure. There may be a reason why my brain has clamped down on past memories like sutures. I thought that knowing every detail would finally create full healing, that I could have blessed resolution forever. In this circumstance, I realize now that it might be best to give my brain the benefit of the doubt henceforth.
One of the debates raging among feminists is the concept of trigger warnings. Skeptics feel that these experiences are more hysteria, more psychosomatic, more Salem Witch Trial than anything else. Others point to survivors of one form of trauma or another, intending to protect them from pain and discomfort whenever possible. I’ve always been wary of how quickly useful terminology can become a parody of itself, cheapening the altruism and intention that went into it in the first place. Yet I do try to be sympathetic when I read another stomach-churning first-person account of a rape and sexual assault.
This doesn’t mean that I ever thought that triggering and trigger warnings were patently false. On the subject of obscenity, Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously noted that, for him, he knew it when he saw it. Regarding the after-effects of trauma, I can now say that I, too, know it when I see (or experience) it. I can no longer deny what I am feeling, nor can I take for granted the length of time this episode may last.
True empathy is difficult for each of us without direct experience. Until Saturday, I was certainly sympathetic towards those who were victims of rape and incest, but there were limits to my compassion. I wasn’t intending to overlook anyone’s private struggle, but I simply did not understand and did not know how to understand. There are genocidal wars currently raging in our world and many humanitarian crises, but beyond my computer and television screen, these are only abstractions. I am not there. I do not know them. And I won’t pretend that even the struggles of my life make me an expert activist. What I can do is to listen. We do too much talking in the First World and not enough introspection.
While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then evil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
I include this parable for the benefits of activists of every treasured cause. Some of us will hear us. In the best case scenario, we will produce a hefty crop enough to feed a thousand people. Others may have good intentions at first, but their roots and commitment are not deep enough to sustain their initial devotion, so they wither and die. When times become painful or rough, they will not remain. Still another group will sprout and grow, but they’ll find worldly pleasures like money and immorality more compelling and rewarding.
Until Saturday, though seeing, I did not see. Though hearing, I did not understand. I nodded my head up and down in cadence, intending the best, but somewhat blind. I will not pretend to be smart enough to undo the ways of people, though I pray that my words be amplified by the Holy Spirit. I am a healer by nature. I am a fixer. For those who count themselves as the same, read these words if they give you comfort. Some will hear your message and some will not, but for their own reasons, not yours. It had to be their idea first, even if it really was yours. Being an activist requires humility as much as it requires initiative.