That Sadness You Feel? Maybe It's Moral Injury.

Woman standing in dark window.

There's this feeling you can't describe. It's not trauma. It's not fatigue. It's not anger or sadness. It's not depression. It might lead to those other feelings, but it's deeper. It sits there, underneath it all. It's a feeling of loss. It's a feeling about how you'll spend the rest of your life.

You feel like you're waiting for an apology that's never going to come. You're waiting for some sense of vindication that won't arrive until it's too late. Maybe it already did, and it didn't help.

The feeling doesn't go away. It just gets quieter.

There's a name for that feeling.

It's called moral injury.

A psychiatrist named Jonathan Shay introduced this term in the 1990s. He was treating war veterans who'd seen or done things they had a hard time living with. Since then, psychologists have applied the idea of moral injury to doctors and nurses. They've used it to understand burnout and demoralization in teachers, social workers, and refugees.

All of us have been through hell over the last few years. We've all seen and done things we have a hard time living with. We've had to make impossible choices and sacrifices. We've had to watch suffering.

We've seen a side of our friends and family that makes us shake our heads. We've seen how far ignorance, cruelty, and indifference can go. Some of us always knew about that side, but we didn't see it on such unapologetic display every single day. We didn't see it celebrated like it is now.

That has scarred us.

More of us are dealing with moral injury than we know. Nobody gives us the time or space we need to process our emotions.

Nobody lets us feel grief or sadness.

We live in a world that makes it almost impossible to do the right thing for yourself or anyone else. We live in a world that tells everyone to put themselves first, often at someone else's expense. It's not just about the pandemic, either. It's about climate collapse and the devastating disasters we see every day now. It's about fair living wages and the relentless rise in the cost of living. There shouldn't even be a cost of living, and yet we've made it normal.

We're forced to witness legalized violence and social murder every day. We're forced to witness genocide. We're forced to participate in social, cultural, and economic systems that dehumanize us.

We're told the only way to manage our mental health is to ignore all of the death and destruction we see every day. We're told the only way to enjoy life is to risk that life for superficial pleasures like eating out. We're told to disregard the needs of the unfortunate and the vulnerable.

We're told to send our children to schools that aren't safe. We're told that our needs make us inconvenient and irrational.

We're told to smile through it all, no matter what. It doesn't matter how you feel or what you saw today. You have to smile. If you don't, your employer will deny you a living wage. You could lose your job. You could lose your home. You could lose your health coverage. Then you're in real trouble. There's a smartphone app that will help you practice that fake smile.

The app will even give you a grade.

You smile under a guillotine.

That's moral injury.

Our leaders don’t give us the tools to deal with this rolling dystopia. More often, they deprive us of those tools. The media we consume only offers a handful of ways to manage the stress and sadness. You can practice watered down, westernized forms of minimalism and mindfulness. Then you can practice retail therapy, the art of consoling yourself with consumer products.

And people do.

People console themselves with new clothes. They console themselves with new tech toys and apple gadgets. They console themselves with new cars and vacations. They console themselves with plastic.

Every day, we're told not to stop and reflect on our emotions. We're told to keep hustling. We're told not to spend time alone. Instead, we're told to distract ourselves from the world's problems by fixating on our own personal dreams and our superficial social calendars. We're told that's healthy. In reality, it's not. It's just the engine that fuels the economy.

Look at the billionaires.

They might be the most morally injured of all. Look at the things they've done to build their wealth. Do you think they want to stop and reflect on any of that? No, they don't want to remember any of it. That's why they can't do anything now but squander their fortunes on bigger yachts.

The psychology on moral injury offers a solution.

It’s a sense of purpose.

There's only one way you can deal with your moral injury. You have to recognize it. You have to feel it. You have to pay attention to the problems. You have to try and do something about them, even just one of them. You have to do that, even if you're not sure it's going to work.

What you do doesn't have to be loud. It can be quiet. You can do just one thing to help one person, or yourself. You can be honest about just one thing that matters, and you can listen to just one person.

It's okay to have scars.

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