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On “Moral Injury”

A few things I’ve read over the last 24 hours or so have me thinking on a quiet Saturday morning…

Yesterday, I came across a term I had never heard before via someone in the world of counseling: “moral injury.”  In this case, the term was located in the context of a conversation about how to treat soldiers returning home from war, but it could obviously be used more broadly as well.  Here’s how the term was being used:

By moral injury, I mean when you either do or witness things that go against your profound moral code of how one should be in the world. It puts ethics up for grabs in impossible ways. The result of moral injury is usually profound sadness, grief and guilt.

My initial sense is that this is a useful term.  I think “moral injury” captures something unique that other words like “remorse” or “guilt” or “dissonance” do not convey.  For me, it seems to get at the fact that when we go against our moral convictions, we are injuring ourselves— we are going against the most important part of who we are.  Just like physical injuries come about when we do something that crosses the limits of what our bodies can do, so when we cross moral boundaries we go against the grain of how things are supposed to be in the world and between human beings.  And this causes pain.

But does the word “injury” serve to push these experiences, however subtly, even further from the realm of personal responsibility?  After all, injuries are often things that happen to us. Our actions are often the direct or indirect cause of injuries we experience, but we tend to speak of “getting injured” or being the “victim” of an injury.  Does describing the crossing of moral boundaries as causing “injury” just add further lexical ammunition to a culture already fleeing from personal accountability at every turn?

This morning I re-read the first chapter of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart.  I read this book a decade ago when it first came out, but decided to pull it out again this week.  Willard’s language around the call to discipleship is bracing and uncompromising—particularly in the opening chapter where he lays the human propensity toward self-idolatry and reticence to admit our “lostness” bare:

Much of what is called Christian profession today involves little remorse or sorrow over what we have been or even for what we have done.  There is little awareness of having been lost, or of a radical evil in our hearts, bodies, and souls, which we must get away from and from which only God can deliver us.  To manifest such awareness today would be regarded as being psychologically sick.  It is common today to hear Christians talk of their ‘brokenness.’  But when you listen closely it is clear that they are talking about their wounds, the things they have suffered, not of the evil that is in them.  Few today have discovered that they have been disastrously wrong and that they cannot change or escape the consequences on their own.

I have to admit, this is me.  I am far more likely to use the language of “brokenness” than I am to talk of the “evil” or the “sin” that is deep with us.  And I think this is true in the broader Christian world, as well.  I frequently hear “brokenness” language in reference to the human predicament or the state of the world, but rarely hear anything about the “sin” that lurks in the human heart.  It is much more tolerable to think (and speak) about ourselves as victims of some abstraction called “brokenness” than it is to acknowledge that we are active and willful contributors to the evil in our world.

I do think that we have other options besides bouncing back and forth between the extremes of “I’m nothing more than a victim of generic brokenness” and “I’m nothing more than an evil, guilty wretch.”  And perhaps “moral injury” is as good a term as any for describing our multifaceted relationship to the evils of our world.  We are responsible agents who are accountable for our actions.  We are also victims of evil outside of us.  We injure ourselves when, through choices we make, we violate the deepest part of what we were created to be.  We are also injured by the deeds of other moral agents and systems and structures that we cannot control.  We wound ourselves and are wounded by others.  Perhaps “moral injury” is a term that can accommodate both realities.

In the conversation cited above, one participant had this to say:

I think [moral injury is] a wonderful term. It gives due respect to the best part of our humanness.

I think I agree.  The wrong that is done in the world—by us and to us—wounds the most important part of who we are.  And, conversely, the right that is done in the world—by us and to us—heals and honours the deepest part of who we are as human beings and what we were made for.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I can imagine how the expression moral injury could be used in a counseling situation aimed at helping a person increase their functioning. It is an expression that can be used along with the expression “healing.” It implies that one can recover rather than suffer permanently, absent divine intervention, contrary to what Dallas Willard prefers – a discovery “that they have been disastrously wrong and that they cannot change or escape the consequences on their own.”

    A woman I know recently found a man’s dead purple body on a trail, reported it to search and rescue officials and waited for them to arrive. This was a stressful situation and one could certainly say it injured her. It probably would not have been a moral injury, unless she felt guilt at her inability to resuscitate a purple corpse, except that it became one when search and rescue arrived. Not only did she need to defend herself against implicit accusations that she had killed this stranger, she had to endure a ludicrous lecture about how this would not have happened if the man were not hiking alone and how she was acting irresponsibly to be hiking alone herself. So, here was an innocent woman on a short hike one evening who happened to find a dead body and report it to the government who sent a group of muscular moral bullies wearing uniforms flying in a helicopter to retrieve the body and beat her up morally and psychologically.

    Moral injury is a good term.

    Unfortunately, many pastors, like the search and rescue bullies, inflict it from the pulpit.

    May 29, 2012
    • Wow, that’s quite a story. I can imagine that must have been quite upsetting for that woman on a number of levels. Talk about “how not to handle a difficult situation…”

      Re: injury and recovery, I think you are right about the connection there. That’s one of the features I like about the term as well. And, ironically enough given your distaste for Willard, I think that he would enthusiastically agree. I think he would say that part of what recovery or healing involves is a proper diagnosis of the problem. And that the diagnosis is that we are both victims of and contributors to sin in the world. We are sinners who are also sinned against. Too often, from his perspective (and I am inclined to agree), one dimension gets emphasized at the expense of the other contributing to a less than complete picture of the nature of human beings, the nature of the deepest problems that face us, and the nature of the solution.

      May 29, 2012
    • Ken #

      In counseling situations, where the aim is improvement in functioning, a number of therapies use reframing techniques that enable a person to externalize or objectify something that first presents as an internal or subjective matter (like guilt, for example.) It is a step towards dealing with whatever is affecting functioning.

      I think that Willard is affirming an evilness in us that counseling (secular, at least) does not affirm. He also appears to affirm a theological belief that one cannot overcome this evil on one’s own, but that one needs God to either overcome it or help one overcome it.

      While Willard and the counselors may both use the expression healing, they are indeed speaking about different things.

      As for me, I neither speak of sinfulness or brokenness, and certainly not of an evil within us. (For different reasons, I also avoid the counseling terms other cliches when speaking to someone about an “injury.”) It is not that I imagine humans to be inherently good. Increasingly I just see us as the animals that we are, products of natural selection, neither good nor bad, capable of loving and hating, of kindness and cruelty.

      So, I imagine that Willard and I are not in agreement on much of anything.

      I have sympathy for counselors and their ways. As an undergraduate, I was mentored by older friends who were counselors at the university, and my wife studied counseling in graduate school and worked for a while at a clinic at the university.

      I am much closer to being like you than like Willard, even while you admire him and I do not. You wrote, “I am far more likely to use the language of “brokenness” than I am to talk of the “evil” or the “sin” that is deep with us.” That is almost the same as me.

      May 29, 2012
      • I think that Willard is affirming an evilness in us that counseling (secular, at least) does not affirm. He also appears to affirm a theological belief that one cannot overcome this evil on one’s own, but that one needs God to either overcome it or help one overcome it.

        Actually, I think at least some secular counseling does affirm something similar to Willard here. They may not use theological language or words like “sinful” and “evil,” but one hears frequently that part of the path to healing involves admitting that we are powerless to fix ourselves (the obvious example that springs to mind is Alcoholics Anonymous and similar organizations). Whether it is described in terms of “innate tendencies” or inclinations or predispositions, there is often some version of “there are unhelpful and unhealthy drives, desires, etc within us that we are powerless to overcome on our own.” Perhaps it is two ways of talking about the same underlying reality.

        It is not that I imagine humans to be inherently good. Increasingly I just see us as the animals that we are, products of natural selection, neither good nor bad, capable of loving and hating, of kindness and cruelty.

        Yes, but these products of natural selection cannot seem to avoid morally evaluating the various capabilities and tendencies that they have been given–promoting some and restraining others, etc. Not everything that has been delivered to us (biologically speaking) is acceptable in our eyes. Whether we agree with Willard’s views about the need to be formed in the image of Christ or not, most of us seem to agree that we need to be formed into something beyond the raw capabilities delivered to us by nature. This is the gift and the burden of being human.

        May 29, 2012
      • Ken #

        Yes, the AA way affirms reliance on a higher power. That way makes my psychologist sister nervous, as it did the faculty at the university where my wife studied counseling. They see that as a useful fiction in some cases.

        We differ in some ways related to our understandings of humanity and God and in our assessments of the nature and worth of morality.

        May 30, 2012

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