When Worship's a Trigger: 4 Ways to Make Spirituality a Safe Space

When Worship's a Trigger: 4 Ways to Make Spirituality a Safe Space


How might you create holidays around the ones that mean the most?

The High Holy Days came and went again this fall and yet again I failed to celebrate them.

As a child, I observed these and other Jewish holidays with my extended family—which might be why I observe them no more. Their very names spark memories of dinner-table ridicule, eating disorders, snits, shouts, threats— "I might … just … LEAVE!"

I wish holidays held more memory and meaning in my heart than this. I wish their music, foods, tools, prayers and rites filled me with reverence, happiness and hope.

They don't. And it has taken nearly a lifetime to understand that this— along with many other perceived moral flaws—is not my fault.

In my case, as perhaps in yours, holidays forced into close contact kinfolk who could barely stand to be together. Holidays demanded that these ostensible celebrants express deep love and faith that they were too resentful, hateful, anxious, depressed and/or furious to feel.

This is how holidays imprinted themselves in my mind: not as bright shining pinnacles but as dark scary minefields through which one wades warily, hating oneself for feeling so shut-down.

We've all seen trigger warnings—on TV programs and college syllabi, for instance—meant to keep trauma survivors safe.

But what if holidays are triggers? Are they off-limits to us? Must we affix virtual trigger-warning signs to all their trimmings, rites, stories and songs? As autumn deepens and we walk past bright store windows, is this even possible?

And were it possible, would that be how we want to live?

I know I could start observing those traditional holidays in new ways, not as my extended family did: I am an adult, after all. But that would require having a relationship with some version of God who filled my heart with comfort, joy or trust.

Which, to be honest, I do not.

I told a pious woman recently that I lack self-esteem. Her eyelids sank in sympathy.

"My God would never let me feel that way," she said gently, "because He loves me just as He created me, just as I am. I wish you knew He loves you, too."

I don't.

The God whom I was raised to worship—the One who presided over holidays—was harsh, judgmental, punishing. Life under Him was constant tests which we could fail so easily and face dire penalties. Our God was mean. As were most of the humans I worshiped back then, my earthly deities.

So my real trigger isn't holidays. It's God and omnipotence and worship.

I know I'm not the only one.

This doesn't mean we're sinners or we're soulless. Certain states of mind/heart/body are doors onto deeper, richer realms than we might ever otherwise have known. These states resemble worship but are softer, subtler, safer—more inviting, thus less terrifying.

Here are four examples of such states. Which feel most relevant to you? How do you express those emotions? How might you enhance, expand, honor or prioritize one or more of them in daily life? How might you create holidays around the ones that mean the most?

  • Admiration. We all like and even love ideas, objects, places, practices, people, animals and more. We like and love them because we admire aspects of them, want to emulate them, and wish we had those qualities. Let's learn to celebrate this feeling without affording the objects of our admiration total power over us.
  • Awareness. A lack of awareness causes suffering. Neither witnessing nor accepting truths around us—life is fragile, Dad has anger issues, I feel trapped—sustains our pain and self-blame while setting us up for devastating shocks. Making a holiday around awareness might help us begin—or sanctify—a practice.
  • Sacrifice. Many holidays—including Sabbaths—ask observers not to work or play, to limit their diets or fast. Sacrifice is unpopular in this indulgent age, but it can teach us more about appreciation, richness and endurance than words ever could. What might we forego for a day or week? How might it change us?
  • Awe. It's easy to mistake this one for fear or fun. It can have elements of both, but also wonder, reverence, stunned surprise. "Awesome" is a cliché that cheapens the experience, its transformative authenticity and vividness. When are you awestruck? What if we set aside "awe time," consenting to (safe) surrender while immersing ourselves in that flow?

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.