Seneca and Trigger Warnings



I took part in a community discussion a few years ago. The rules asked me to label anything “potentially hurtful” with something I’d never heard of before, a so-called trigger warning. I asked what this meant and learned that the mention of certain topics “triggers” painful, often unbearable memories in the audience.

For example, a discussion of the movie Snow White might trigger horrific memories of child abuse in someone whose real stepmother mistreated her. A discussion of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Don Quixote should also come with a trigger warning since the ancient Chinese were classist, Don Quixote contains instances of sexism and both describe violence. Much Ado About Nothing likewise might trigger painful recollections of slut shaming or bring back long buried feelings of rejection. A triggered person might fall helplessly into a vortex of remembered class oppression, weep from the memory of some deeply wounding misogyny or to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder for myriad reasons.

The idea is that by providing these warnings the sufferers might avoid painful stimulus and, thus, minimize the already prodigious suffering an unjust world has saddled them with. It is like providing someone with a peanut allergy warning that such and such sauce contains peanuts. Huffington Post writer Lindsay Holmes discusses the callous University of Chicago’s policy of banning trigger warnings and safe spaces as such:

“In other words, students who may be susceptible to mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorders, are undeserving of a warning that a lecturer or guest speaker may aggravate those issues or traumatic experiences … the university also stated that it would not provide zones on campus for students to freely visit where they can be sure to avoid hateful and re-traumatizing rhetoric. (In case, say, someone invites George Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who likes to tell college audiences that rape victims are a privileged class on campus.)”

All this came to mind today when I picked up my first book by Seneca. A Consolation to Marcia is, as the title implies, a letter from Seneca to Marcia as she was struggling with the death of her son. Seneca begins his letter by praising Marcia (he characterizes her as “manly”) – strength of spirit, courage and filial piety. Seneca then explains that had he considered Marcia weak, contemptible or silly, he would have either said nothing or sent along the usual, Hallmark-card expressions of sympathy. However, since he does respect the lady, he describes his approach as the following.

“The evidence of the greatness of your mind forbade me to pay heed to your sex, forbade me to pay heed to your face, which, since sorrow once clouded it, unbroken sadness holds for all these years. And see – I am not stealing upon you with stealth, nor am I planning to filch from you any of your sufferings, I have reminded you of old hurts, and to prove that your present wound may be healed, I have shown you the scar of one which was equally severe. Let others use soft measures and caresses; I have determined to do battle with your grief, and I will dry those weary and exhausted eyes, which already, to tell you the truth, are weeping more from habit than from sorrow

All vices sink into our whole being, if we do not crush them before they gain a footing; and in like manner these sad, pitiable, and discordant feelings end by feeding upon their own bitterness, until the unhappy mind takes a sort of morbid delight in grief. I should have liked, therefore, to have attempted to effect this cure in the earliest stages of the disorder, before its force was fully developed; it might have been checked by milder remedies, but now that it has been confirmed by time it cannot be beaten without a hard struggle. In like manner, wounds heal easily when the blood is fresh upon them: they can then be cleared out and brought to the surface, and admit of being probed by the finger: when disease has turned them into malignant ulcers, their cure is more difficult. I cannot now influence so strong a grief by polite and mild measures: it must be broken down by force.”


This strikes me as pretty much the opposite of a trigger warning. Indeed, I might characterize it as a warning against avoiding triggers. I know whose approach I prefer, but I’m curious to which you think is better.






  1. Seneca’s. I think there’s a great truth to what he says there. Nowadays we have this mantra that we shouldn’t hold back emotion, that we should express it, “let it out.” Somehow, we think, healing is supposed to take place in all this. But in my experience, that doesn’t always work. It doesn’t even work most of the time. Our modern mantra, it seems to me, should only apply to people who are extremely bottled up and can’t acknowledge that grief is eating them from the inside out.

    Feeding on emotions such as grief can lead to an unhealthy feedback cycle. It’s like “fake it until you make it” in reverse. Crying leads to more crying leads to more…

    On trigger warnings, college students will have to face the trigger-warning-less world someday. I hope they’re prepared…because I can’t imagine living in a world in which they’re not.

    1. I agree with you. I sort of stumbled accidentally onto Seneca and discovered that I really like him. The ways he made himself resilient and maintained his contentment even through getting banished were pretty inspirational. He also wrote brilliantly about how life only seems short to the people who waste it.

      As for college students, I think at some point we have to stop pretending it’s morally good to be crushed, victimized or overcome with ptsd. That said, there is a case to be made that the paying customer ought to have control over the products they purchase. Perhaps universities should just be honest: “we cater to the sensitive” or “we don’t cater to the sensitive.”

      (In the spirit of charity, I resisted the urge to substitute “feeble” for “sensitive.”) 😛

      1. I know what you mean about “the paying customer” but I tend to see college students as basically immature; their minds are still forming. College should be about education, a rite of passage into adulthood, no? Of course, the reality is that colleges are willing to cater to the desires of the customer, and that’s okay to some extent. But I see this sort of thing as a disservice to students (along with many other things that goes on).

      2. Oh I agree that it’s a disservice. I would also strongly counsel people to avoid places with “safe spaces” and the like. However, there’s also a part of me that’s okay with letting people screw themselves.

  2. I’ve recently become in dog rescue, following a break of a few years since my last rescue activities. Something that has really shocked me is how MANY of our young adoption applicants are looking for emotional support dogs to help them cope with depression, anxiety, or PTSD. I love to give a dog a job, and in the past I’d have wholeheartedly immersed myself in the project of finding the right dog for that specific person … but now? Not so much. I find myself becoming resistant every time I read an application and realize I have another one.

    I know pain is real. I know trauma is real. I’ve lived with depression (and, more recently, anxiety) all my adult life (that’s more than 40 years now!) and my living hasn’t always been dignified or pretty. I don’t believe in blundering unfeelingly into someone else’s pain and then gaslighting them.


    Safe spaces? Trigger warnings? Nope, nope, nope! I am not responsible for protecting you from the possible risk of pain. Setting your boundaries, learning to identify and guard against your pain, and building your safe spaces are your responsibility. When did the inalienable right to pursue happiness morph into a right to be protected from unhappiness? I think it’s bullshit, frankly, and even my dogs shouldn’t be asked to pander to it.

    1. I think you have a balanced way of looking at this issue. There is a responsibility people have to reach a certain level of toughness and self-sufficiency.

      And yeah, a professional victim might not be a good owner for a pooch.

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