Wounds want to be healed
"Moral injury" and belonging
This line has been reverberating in my head since I first read it. Scott Remer said:
One measure of a society’s sickness is the level of dissonance that an individual confronts in trying to fulfill all her moral duties.
I think this may be the defining feature of our world today: the degree to which it is impossible to live life without participating in a system that actively harms others. This knowledge, often embodied at a sub-cognitive level, I think is responsible for the tremendous dissonance so many of us feel.
I’ve written previously about this dissonance, but I’ve come to believe that I inadvertently anchored on the wrong metaphor, and I think the choice really matters. I initially explored it through the metaphor of “awakening,” basically a challenge of awareness. I now think it’s better understood as a process of healing: understanding the dissonance as a form of unconscious trauma that needs to be healed.
I came across a concept recently that gives a name to this experience: moral injury. In a wonderful TedX talk, Maryann Jacobi Gray defines moral injury as:
The distress that we feel when our behavior fails to live up to our moral standards.
It is this concept I want to explore today, in dialogue as always with our universal quest for belonging.
TL;DR: A defining feature of living under globalized capitalism is the knowledge that our wellbeing depends on someone else’s suffering. We experience this knowledge as a form of trauma: the idea of “moral injury” acknowledges the reality that it hurts to hurt people. This is a systemic problem, built into our economic and social structures: the only antidote is systems transformation. Healing from trauma requires that we reclaim power and agency: that we learn to hold the tension of participating in a hostile system without pledging allegiance to that system. We have the ability to heal, and to take action together toward a world where everyone belongs. We can live lives of integrity… together.
If you value these inquiries and want to support my work, please consider subscribing. Our next monthly gathering for subscribers is March 22nd, @ noon PT.
“It hurts to hurt someone”
Brené Brown said that it’s easier to cause pain than to feel pain. I wonder about that. For me personally, it doesn’t feel true. But the point of this post is not to get stuck in a place of comparing levels of harm. When we talk about suffering, we tend to focus (rightly!) on the experience of those who are harmed/oppressed. That is essential: I fully subscribe to a vision of transformative justice that centers the person harmed. And: I want to transcend in this post the victim/offender, oppressed/oppressor binary: can we create a sufficiently nuanced container to hold both?
Today I want to expand our aperture to bring into view the unique form of suffering that comes from harming another person. Let’s focus today on unintentional harm: when we accidentally hurt another person. I take this title quote from Gray’s TedX. She elaborates:
When we wound another person without meaning to, whether those wounds are emotional or physical, we feel wounded as well… that toxic storm of guilt and shame and disconnection, alienation, and defensiveness.
She even coined a term for this, emerging from her own traumatic experience accidentally running over a child in her car: we find ourselves cast as an “unintentional perpetrator.” She uses the language of “moral injury” to describe her experience. I don’t think that’s quite right, for reasons I’ll come to. But she does offer another insight that I find powerfully explanatory of this current moment:
The worst part of moral injury, though, is the loneliness. Human beings have an innate need to feel accepted and valued. And when we unintentionally hurt someone, that comfortable sense of belonging that we mostly just take for granted slips.
To cause harm, even inadvertently, is to be “othered,” to be banished to the role of “perpetrator,” somehow outside of society and the possibility of belonging. It is the shift—metaphorical and actual—from belonging to exclusion, from home to prison (thinking here e.g. of the infamous case of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, the runaway truck driver in Colorado).
This I think is the common feature connecting the harm Gray speaks to with what the literature talks of as moral injury: in both cases, a core piece of the wound experienced by the “unintentional perpetrator” is a deep threat to belonging.
Understanding moral injury
Most of the literature on moral injury emerges from the experience of soldiers in wartime, and in particular as a way to understand one aspect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Echoing Gray’s findings, the National Center for PTSD explains:
In order for moral injury to occur, the individual must feel like a transgression occurred and that they or someone else crossed a line with respect to their moral beliefs.
The literature distinguishes between violations of commission (I did something) from omission (I didn’t do something, e.g. defend my compatriots) that amount to the same thing: I didn’t behave in a manner consistent with my sense of integrity. It’s difficult to overstate this harm: suicide and suicidal ideation is far higher in those who have experienced moral injury (unintentional perpetrators) than those who were traumatized (what we might think of as victims). And it’s all the more difficult because we so often don’t even acknowledge that this is a form of harm/suffering, or that it is worthy of our empathy.
I’m reminded here of a quotation I used in my senior thesis in undergrad, twenty years ago, from the philosopher Christine Korsgaard. I was writing about alienation, and this sentiment resonated powerfully with how I understand integrity:
It is the conceptions of ourselves that are most important to us that give rise to unconditional obligations. For to violate them is to lose your integrity and so your identity, and to no longer be who you are. That is, it is to no longer be able to think of yourself under the description under which you value yourself and find your life to be worth living and your actions to be worth undertaking. It is to be for all practical purposes dead or worse than dead.
To be dead or worse than dead. I remember I had an argument about this with my thesis advisors: they thought it was hyperbole. I disagreed: it felt (and feels) to me foundational to what it means to be human, and what it means to be an individual who is part of a collective. This to me is the core violation of moral injury: it is fundamentally dehumanizing (in the literal sense that it violates a core precept of what it means to be fully human). The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse explains:
Moral injury is damage done to the soul of the individual.
Yes. This feels right: it’s about our ability to belong to ourselves—and therefore to belong to our society.
“The system is forcing you to be less than human”
This is the central point. I take this quote from Annette Simmons in the context of the moral injury (she says “moral distress”) experienced by front-line public health workers in the pandemic. I found the same sentiment echoed in Sarah Jaffe’s exploration of the “great resignation” (which introduced me to the concept of moral injury, and helped weave some of these threads). This is the problem: increasingly, there is no way to live a life of integrity, to live without suffering moral injury. Maurice Stevens has my favorite systemic treatment of the subject in this breathtaking essay, where he explains:
Our present world is structured such that one person’s well-being requires the debasing injury and negation of another.
Yes! That’s the thing so many of us are feeling. When I first unpacked this a couple years ago I missed naming that as a unique form of harm, and even trauma… one that is far more pernicious and enduring than the inadvertent and time-bound harm that Gray speaks to. The sitcom The Good Place has the best summary of this experience, which Ted Danson’s character does in an easy-to-digest way:
We are aware that our choices have consequences. We understand at some level that there is a direct relationship between next-day-Amazon-delivery and workers in warehouses forced to urinate into bottles because there isn’t enough time for bathroom breaks. Or that the iPhone we use to communicate with our loved ones is built from precious metals extracted via child labor from toxic cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is the source of pain. This is the moral injury: we recognize our complicity in systems that violate our moral commitments. To be alive under these systems of oppression is to be alienated: to be dehumanized. Anat Shenker-Osorio puts it plainly:
There is no innocence under capitalism.
It’s not awareness we need (though of course that’s part of it); it’s healing. It’s transformation.
No healing without systems transformation
Here’s the thing: healing is only possible if we’re not constantly re-opening the wound. The wildfire must finish burning before the fireweed can grow. I’m reminded of a gorgeously evocative line from the Postal Service’s Nothing Better:
Your heart won’t heal right if you keep tearing out the sutures.
We live in society that is continuously re-traumatizing: our efforts to heal are stymied by a system that tears out the sutures. Healing from trauma requires claiming space from the trauma: it requires “completing the cycle” of the trauma response. Our society doesn’t permit us to do that. Lama Rod Owens describes the way unconscious systemic trauma disrupts our bodies and our relationships:
This is the basic trauma… it’s a disruption… it’s PTSD. It’s this trapped energy in our nervous system that keeps cycling…without being released. It begins to impact our behavior and our thoughts, and how we relate to people.
There is one way to stop the bleeding, and to heal: wholesale systems transformation. For those of us who want to live without oppression, without being oppressed or oppressing others, that goal must be our lodestar. This is the promise of post-capitalism, of economies and societies organized around human thriving (I would say belonging) rather than profit.
Increasingly, many involved in movements toward healing justice recognize this fundamental truth: no individual healing without collective healing; no collective healing without systems transformation. Of course we face an uphill battle, but we have an important advantage that for me is a source of profound hope. Our present systems cannot offer a path to belonging: the price of “winning” at capitalism (or white supremacy, or patriarchy, or…) is losing your soul. Who wants to pay that price?
We are trying to build a world where your wellbeing does not depend on harming someone else: a world where you can live with your soul intact. I loved this interview with Vijay Prashad, where he describes the challenge:
We need to find a way for us mutually, to survive without having to hurt other people.
And we have a universal basis for solidarity. The concept of moral injury recognizes that all of us are harmed by these systems, and all of us stand to benefit from transformation. This was always the problem I had with Marxism: it was too fatalistic. Ironically, it makes the same mistake as capitalism: it assumes we are primarily motivated by “material interest.” In that view those at the top of the hierarchy would never let go of power; he had no way to imagine transformation short of revolution. Marxism (or other theories of privilege that turn on a narrow definition of material interest) can’t explain groups like Resource Generation: we resort to calling them “class traitors.”
The same is true of White people organizing against white supremacy (groups like SURJ), or men organizing against patriarchy: oppositional theories that assume rigid hierarchies are unable to explain why people supposedly “on top” may choose transformation). But expanding our aperture to include non-material interests, such as the universal need for belonging and to live free from moral injury: and suddenly we have the basis for a truly universal solidarity movement.
“The opposite of trauma is power”
I don’t think many people would fundamentally disagree with the vision I’m calling for here. As Anat Shenker-Osorio says:
Our opposition is actually not the opposition. It's cynicism. It's not that people don't think our ideas are right, it's that they don't think our ideas are possible.
We’ve been socialized into powerlessness. As Danielle Sered reminds us:
Trauma is, most fundamentally, an experience of powerlessness.
The antidote to trauma, particularly in the face of ongoing trauma, must be an effort to reclaim power, to re-assert agency, to see ourselves not as passive agents in someone else’s story but as actors in our own.
Prentis Hemphill offered a beautiful reflection challenging our obsession with guilt and innocence, with hypocrisy and purity. They explain:
Innocence offers safety, while guilt leaves you at risk for expulsion and isolation… What if we could see ourselves less as innocent, but as harmed and harming, more or less honest, more or less able to be conscious when triggered, more or less manipulative, more or less willing to take responsibility for our own change, more or less caught in patterns.
I really loved this piece from Thaler Pekar calling for more nuanced narratives. She explains:
Storytelling that solely propels a narrative of good versus evil, that says there are always winners and losers, that emphasizes conflict, is dangerous. Applying a judgmental framework of “good versus bad” stifles authentic discussion about complex issues. It demands a competitive picking of sides, and a rush to identify both others and oneself as either virtuous or evil.
This is the task of our movements for justice: building our capacity to assert agency and power inside systems that seek to strip it from us… and to do so together, in solidarity.
Minding the gap and holding the tension
I want to end where I started. I take the title for this post from a podcast interview with Adam Kahane. And it remains a source of profound hope, and a powerful reminder. The world we are trying to build, to make possible, is deeply natural. We are aligned with life’s own impulses: that is our strength. Wounds want to heal. We want to belong. The system we live in is deeply unnatural, and we know it.
Brené Brown talks about acknowledging the difference between our present reality and our desired world as “minding the gap”: it’s our work to move in the direction of the future we desire. I often talk about this as “holding the tension”: recognizing that we are complicit in the very systems we seek to dismantle… without letting that realization paralyze us into inaction. I want to return again to Maurice Stevens’ fantastic essay, where he names the challenge:
Sitting with ourselves together builds collective power that can ground the tension in a unity that is deeper and wider than that tension itself. “Holding” the tension together leads to the realization that tension doesn’t actually require resolution in order to move toward planning together.
This is vital: we have to able to take action without waiting for resolution: we need to heal our wounds in the face of ongoing injury. Gray identified three steps toward healing from moral injury:
Accountability (taking responsibility for the results of our actions, even without intending them)
Compassion (for ourselves, in addition to those we harmed)
Community (gathering together, to heal the rupture of causing harm)
The first step in reclaiming agency and power is recognizing that we already have it: that we can always name our discomfort. That itself is a radical act: declining to pretend that everything is okay, even while we are still caught up in the system. Vaclav Havel calls this the “refusal to live within the lie.” Frederic Laloux too acknowledges the liberatory power of that simple act, offering this:
There is an aliveness that comes from saying “I don’t know the answer, but this is really important to me, and I’m no longer willing to be out of integrity any longer.”
There is a fourth step I would add to Gray’s list: taking action. Stepping into intentional practice… always in community. As agents in a system, we are constantly engaging in systems change: every act we take influences the broader system of which we are a part. Not changing isn’t an option: the question is what kind of change do we want to propagate? Staci Haines reminds us:
In some ways we are overly adaptive to trauma and oppression. We numb and get used to it in a way that we should never get used to…we need to practice new ways of being inside of that system… We become what we practice. We are always practicing, we can’t not practice. So what are we practicing?
I think I’ll close here. They say fear is contagious; so is courage. As more people refuse to live within the lie, or to be cowed into silence by our complicity, it inspires others to do the same. It reminds us of our power, and inspires us to close the gap, to move in the direction of our dreams. We cannot live without our souls intact: moral injury creates a rupture. I’m reminded of Al Pacino’s famous speech from Scent of a Woman, where he honors the choice by Chris O’Donnell’s character not to violate his own integrity. One person standing up CAN change a system.
As always, I’d love to hear what resonates, what doesn’t, and how you’re holding the tension, minding the gap, and taking action in the direction of belonging.
I’m thinking about a three-part series exploring capitalism, along the lines of what I did for patriarchy: writing this post I realized how muddled my own thinking is around it, and how that slipperiness makes it difficult to confront and navigate. Would that be of interest?