I recently came across a discussion of moral injury, and immediately recognized how that applied to a number of situations in my life, past and present. Much of what is written about moral injury relates to war. Unsurprisingly as combatants are trained to, and sometimes actually do harm and kill people in combat. And/or may fail to be protected by leaders.
Moral injury is the social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness, and loyalty. Harming others, whether in military or civilian life; failing to protect others, through error or inaction; and failure to be protected by leaders, especially in combat—can all wound a person’s conscience, leading to lasting anger, guilt, and shame, and can fundamentally alter one’s world view and impair the ability to trust others.Moral Injury, Psychology Today
Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression, which produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound “moral disorientation”.Moral injury – Wikipedia
The concept of moral injury emphasizes the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of trauma. Distinct from psychopathology, moral injury is a normal human response to an abnormal traumatic event. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the concept is used in literature with regard to the mental health of military veterans who have witnessed or perpetrated an act in combat that transgressed their deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. Among healthcare professionals, moral injury refers to unaddressed moral distress leading to the accumulation of serious inner conflict that may overwhelm one’s sense of goodness and humanity. It is important to note that, despite the identification of moral traumas among both veterans and healthcare professionals, research has remained oddly independent between these two groups, and as such, the terminology is not uniform.
I’m just learning about this, and may get some of it wrong. I have felt/do feel anger and guilt related to a number of instances in my life.
There has been an almost constant feeling of moral injury related to my faith community (Quaker). This is paradoxical because I deeply respect and value so many aspects of Quakers, both as a group and exhibited by individuals.
But I have felt “failure to be protected by leaders” in the sense that I want my faith community to agree with and support my spiritual beliefs and practices. There is always the possibility that I might be mistaken in some of my beliefs. And perhaps I should constrain my sense of morality to myself. Perhaps it is not right to be judgmental of others.
However, my beliefs are basically consistent with Quakers’ stated beliefs. My problem occurs in those times when I don’t believe others are putting certain professed beliefs into practice. That’s when I experience moral injury.
Enslavement, colonization and forced assimilation
Quakers were among those involved in enslavement. There were also Quakers among the white settlers who colonized native lands. In addition, Friends were involved in the forced assimilation, the cultural genocide, of native children. There are many who don’t want to deal with this today. Suggesting this was in the past, or we don’t have a responsibility for what our ancestors did.
Unfortunately those traumas are passed from generation to generation. Influence both those who experienced the trauma, and those who caused it, today.
Fossil fuel and pollution
In my pre-teen years I had experiences that showed me consequences of burning fossil fuel and destruction of our environment. Throughout my life I studied and saw ever increasing damage to Mother Earth being done in ever expanding ways. Early on I gave up having a personal automobile.
But I had anger and guilt that despite my best efforts, my carbon footprint was many times greater than that of people in non industrialized communities. And I felt betrayed when my perception was Quakers as a whole were not doing nearly enough to limit their fossil fuel use. Specifically by buying and using personal automobiles. I learned this needed to be tempered when Friends lived in rural areas, or places without adequate mass transit.
Economic injustice and Mutual Aid
The moral injury I’ve been experiencing for the past several years.is related to economic injustice. I believe it is immoral for an economic system to deny access to basic necessities for those who don’t have money to pay for food, shelter, clothing, medical care and/or education. Those who don’t have money through no fault of their own. The COVID pandemic and it’s economic impact have resulted millions more falling into economic insecurity.
I’ve been blessed to learn about and participate in Mutual Aid. The concept that everyone in a community can work together to find solutions to problems that affect the whole community. With Mutual Aid there is no vertical hierarchy. Rather a flat hierarchy where every contributes to the work. Where survival needs are addressed immediately. Work that helps satisfy people’s desire to be involved in meaningful work.
Des Moines Mutual Aid is working now, in these extremely cold conditions, to provide food and shelter to those in need.
I feel disappointment and anger that Quakers as a whole do not see the urgency to create Mutual Aid projects. Do not see the moral imperative to leave an unjust system, and create one that is just.
I am just beginning to learn about this concept of moral injury. But anxious to learn more, especially from the references I see to spiritual treatment of moral injuries.