Triggers

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I have a friend who has a colony of feral cats living close to his house – well, practically right outside his house. He feeds them – a bit – but mostly they are on their own. He lives in the country, well away from his neighbours and his property is also home to hawks, coyotes and weasels. Not surprisingly, the number of cats goes up and down over the course of the year, reaching their peak at about this time of year.

Most of the cats are pretty skittish. Most will accept food but won’t be touched. A few, especially the younger ones are a bit friendlier and will purr and accept pats. One black and white kitten was particularly cuddly. Was.

Recently a relative was visiting with his dog. The dog had had previous run-ins with the cats and had not come out well. This time he chose his target well. He killed the friendly kitten.

When my buddy told me about it, I was upset and angry. I told him I would have kicked hell out of the dog. At the very least that dog should have been muzzled. I’ve thought of that little kitten several times since then and it still upsets me.

So why did I tell you that? Some of you are probably as upset as I was. Some of you might now be upset, angry, grief-stricken, remembering when one of your pets died. Some of you probably feel I should have warned you.

I should have started off by saying: Trigger Warning – dead cat. But I didn’t. On purpose.

Being upset by life is part of the process of living. It also part of the process of finding your moral centre. Confronting events or ideas that upset you help define who you are. To some extent the desire to avoid them is understandable. I certainly turn away from racist or misogynistic remarks and from those who make them. But turning away does not make them go away.

Not that some people haven’t been badly traumatized and need help to get over their pain. Sometimes that means protecting them or letting them protect themselves from painful reminders. But sometimes they need to confront their pain and figuring out what it is about the world that you need to try to change.

A couple of years ago (has it really been that long?) I witnessed the shooting of Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial. It made it hard to go to work – to be anywhere near the memorial or even Parliament Hill. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I also had mild depression, compounded by anxiety. For the former, the treatment was straight forward enough. My doctor told me to go to the site of the shooting every day until I could define it as a safe place. I had to exercise agency to reclaim that place for myself. Avoiding it would have made my condition worse and made it last longer.

The depression and anxiety was another thing. Those I needed to work through rationally and slowly, identifying the things that made me feel that way and figuring out alternative narratives or possible actions that would resolve them. It was a real thing and it gave me insight into what people who have faced much worse go through. Sometimes alternative narratives are hard to find; actions hard to take.

Which is why we do need trigger warnings and safe places sometimes – but not to protect us from being upset or angry or sad. Being emotionally engaged – even painfully – is not the same thing as being traumatized. And treating them the same does nobody any good and may well do them harm. And using other people’s trauma to shut off discourse we don’t like is just plain wrong.

And useless. It will make no more difference to the world than wanting dogs to stop being dogs. And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

 

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Vigilance

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Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Attributed variously to any number of early American and British speakers, including (perhaps incorrectly) Thomas Jefferson, this line epitomizes early liberal thinking about the constant dangers to our freedoms. Sadly, some have interpreted it as an excuse for endless security and increases in police and state powers. Security in defence of freedom is one of the new mantras.

I’ll give you a second quote: Those who trade freedom for safety deserve neither. We cannot allow the terrible incidents of the last week turn us into a closed frightened society. This is the one thing we must not do in the vain hope it will stop another madman doing another mad thing for whatever deluded rationale he may have in his head.

But what to do? Not witlessly expand the powers of surveillance to the point where even thinking dangerous thoughts is a crime. That is Orwell at his finest — or his worst.

So, I railed (another sign I’m getting back to normal) when I heard Minister of Public Safety Stephen Blaney describing his plans for yet more tightening of the security apparatus and especially his dismissal of politicians who had the temerity to question his motives and rationale.

Perhaps Mr. Blaney hasn’t heard that one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We’ve had years of tightening the security system, of increased powers of surveillance and detention. It seems to have worked so well, hasn’t it?

There are other approaches. Germany has had real success diverting young men from Islamic extremism, using the same techniques used to divert them from neo-Nazi activities for decades. It doesn’t involve the police constantly hovering over their shoulders. It involves education, social programs, in some cases, treatment for mental disorders. Vigilance, yes, but designed to inculcate them with a sense of freedom, to integrate them into society. In this they have, in fact, learned from Canada’s approaches to multiculturalism but have taken it farther.

Denmark is trying something even more controversial, radical if I can use that word before its meaning is completely destroyed. They are meeting returning extremists at the border — men who have gone to fight in the Middle East — and given them counselling, education, jobs. They think it is working.

It certainly can’t do any worse than constant hounding, driving disaffected and unhappy men to desperate measures. So, yes, more vigilance — but don’t stop there. Teach them — show them — the value of a free open society.

That’s the way ahead.

But that’s ten minutes.

Meaning

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Yesterday, I spent much of the day giving interviews or writing about what I saw at the War Memorial in Ottawa on Wednesday morning. Today, I am at the ragged edge of my emotions. I cannot, right now, say any more than I already have. But if you want to read my account, you can read this article I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen or listen to me in interviews on CBC North radio and Northbeat. (starts at 3:44)

This, I guess, is how trauma works. I go back and forth between normal and surreal. I get on with my life, doing all the things I always do. Then a random thought or an image pulls me up short and I see it all again, a flash like a photograph or else a slow motion film. And I can’t stop thinking about it. But that passes and I catch my breath and hug my wife and move on. The worst — and the best — moments are when a kind word, the response of a friend or a stranger to the things I wrote, brings the tears back.

Don’t get me wrong. These are good tears. It makes me happy to think my thoughts and words have provided comfort or encouragement or inspiration. That they have helped give meaning to a meaningless act of insanity. Because that’s what we need. Meaning.

They call him a ‘lone wolf terrorist;’ he is ‘a self-radicalized jihadist’. This is not radicalism — this is madness. There is no ideology behind it, certainly no religion. Those are the props used by a single deranged mind to give him meaning in his madness.

I was going to try to say more today. Say something about the difference between what happened yesterday and true radicalism that criticises society to change it for the better. We’ll need some of that in coming days.

I was going to say something more to get these thoughts that keep spinning in my head at four in the morning out of there and onto the page. But I just can’t. Not today. Maybe later. Or, maybe, tomorrow I’ll write something light and funny. As I discovered two days ago, anything is possible.

And that’s ten minutes, more or less.

Grief

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My father died when I was 24. I can still see my mother hanging in the doorframe of my bedroom, her face torn with shock and grief. Her voice was broken as was her heart. She never really recovered, even after the requisite two years of outward grief.

The rest is a series of images, the funeral, the weight of the coffin on my shoulders, the gravesite. The aftermath of crying and then carrying on. I was young, resilient.

Yet I was marked by that event, perhaps more than any other. It was a pivotal moment in my road to maturity – a trail I hope to see the end of soon.

It was also an inoculation against all the moments of loss to follow. I feel somehow that I have suffered less than I should have from the loss of other family (my mother died nine years ago and I’ve lost too many friends to want to count), of marriages and jobs and opportunities. I was shielded from the grief of those losses by the enormity of that first one.

So I feel slightly stunned, slightly broken as I’ve said elsewhere, by the loss of Robin Williams. I didn’t know this man, merely knew of him. Yet there was something quintessential about his humour, his gentleness and deep sensitivity, something so intensely human about him that I find my mind dragged continuously back to the reality of his tragic death. Tragic because it was inevitable as all true tragedies are.

This was not mere chance, the unlucky mutation of cancer, the incomprehensible suddenness of a fatal car crash. This was a chosen death, a death of lost hope. Yet, I also believe it was a choice based in a deep sad self-awareness. Could it have been prevented? I think Robin Williams did everything he could to prevent it. He acknowledged his pain, tried to treat it, reached out to those who could be reached, who wanted to see beyond the comedy and the celebrity.

Then it was too much.

Sadly, we treat mental illness as something different. Depression is an illness and it can be treated. So can cancer or heart disease or diabetes. Somehow we think it’s a lesser thing but, no, it is not. We easily accept that an early death from these physical things is tragic but also a relief, a way out. For Robin Williams depression was terminal and he took the only way out available to him.

But that is ten minutes.