A Sense of Place: An Essay on Moral Injury

by Harry Quiett

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On the opening day of The Children’s Garden, a Volunteers of America Carolinas daycare program for homeless children, the staff welcomed the children and showed them around the facility. Each child found a large cube with their name on it to store their belongings. Later in the day, the staff noticed several children were missing. They searched everywhere only to find the children curled up asleep inside their cubes. When asked why they were in their cubes, all the children responded: “You said it was my place.”

There is something that defies description within the human spirit—it’s what we call the “soul.” It is fueled by that resilient part of every person, which allows him/her to move forward each day. One word we often associate with this is “hope.” While we can find many descriptions of what hope looks like or means to an individual, we do not know how to create it. For hope, like life, seems to be a part of the magic of existence that the soul must discover on its own.

Moral injury is a term we now use to define the result of part of our soul being damaged. It’s what remains when hope has fled and taken with it our sense of self and place—the things that makes us feel worthy of inclusion in the human family and our own community.

Religions all around the world seek to enlighten and support individuals in their soul’s journey toward “being.” However, “being” is a state of existence into which we enter, not one that we can buy or one for which there is a defined path. It is the journey of the soul.

Thus, the very essence of who we are as individuals is beyond rational comprehension. This is what makes moral injury so difficult. The conditions of moral injury are a step beyond clinical analysis; it is the injury not of the mind or body, but the soul.

Dr. Rita Brock brought this concept to the attention of the faith community by bringing faith and psychological disciplines together in her book, Soul Repair. Her work focuses on the military and veteran communities where severe trauma drives a high suicide rate.

Volunteers of America has been addressing human needs and trauma for more than 122 years. It has long been our conviction that we must serve the whole person—body, mind, and spirit—in order to achieve our mission of “reaching and uplifting all people and bringing them to the active service of God.” Addressing severe trauma, and giving it a name, helps us give our efforts a more defined shape as we work more strategically with those we serve. We want to help people understand their own worth and give them the opportunity to find paths to repair often badly damaged souls.

As an organization based in faith but dedicated to principles of social work’s highest standards, we see the effect of moral injury every day. From veterans to abused children to those in the grips of addiction and poverty, the struggle for place and self-understanding underlies the suffering. After a life spent in the ecclesiastical and non-profit worlds, I have become convinced that we must close the gap between the approaches of faith and secular society. The limits of the secular world are expanded by faith into the places beyond language and reason where mythos and logos are experienced and udnerstood.

The term “moral injury” applies to many individuals who have endured suffering to the point that their spirit is broken. In some cases, their spirit may have never been able to fully develop. The damaging effects of poverty are well documented. A lack of economic security leads to instability, which can lead individuals to behave or act in ways that starkly contrast the moral values of our culture as well as the individual’s own upbringing. Victims of poverty are often led into a life of crime, which they know is wrong, but survival is a greater instinct than cultural mores. In fact, a subculture can develop in which “right” might be acknowledged as an ideal but is unrelated to present circumstances.

Two symptoms of moral injury are guilt and shame. If not understood and dealt with, these emotions can lead to anger and, ultimately, a disassociation with reality or a total loss of a sense of place.

The role of every faith community is to provide that “place” where an individual can feel like a viable and valuable member of the human race.

The role of every faith community is to provide that sense of "place" where an individual can feel like a viable and valuable member of the human race. It is within that community that individuals can develop their moral compass, take a measure of their self-esteem, and feel acknowledged. As a faith-based human service movement, Volunteers of America seeks to help every individual beyond food, shelter and material support to find that place.

Two things drive us into community—the natural human instinct for community, and suffering. Charity can address the physical suffering with clothing, food, and shelter. But healing the suffering of the soul requires the presence of God. In the Christian tradition, we understand that presence as Grace.

The theological purpose of Church is to perpetuate the faith. The purpose of faith is to nurture and heal the soul. “Church” is not a structure, it is a group of individuals who have responded to the good news of Grace and Love to reconcile a creation that has mired itself in alienation, misery, and hopelessness.

Christians and other Faith Communities have readily answered the call to assist those in need. Soup kitchens, clothing drives, and much more, have helped fuel the charities of the nonprofit world, but they have not always understood the complexities of the spiritual needs.

In an abundance of joy at the idea of God’s Grace, our emphasis has been on “overcoming.” In Christian theology, death was the first and most vital obstacle to be overcome; Resurrection led to a theology of “overcoming,” which extended to all problems.

However, with the development of psychology, theologians learned that the answers are more complex than simply “accepting Jesus.” Some trauma cannot be simply overcome, it must be lived through, and its presence may never completely go away. Psychology’s grasp of this reality developed into a competition with faith. As a result, secularism has grown dramatically over the last century as psychology engages trauma without the judgment that often accompanies religious counseling; it has grasped the undefinable nature of the struggle of the soul. Pastoral care has emerged as a discipline that seeks to bridge the gap and understand the plight of the suffering soul.

Likewise, there has often been tension between professional social work and ministry. While they have similar objectives, the social worker is more in touch with the complexities of the trauma that brings an individual to ask for assistance. The church, at least in the lay theology of most members, likes simple answers. Actions, ideas, and policies are either “right” or “wrong” based on religious convictions. Unfortunately, those convictions are frequently poorly informed theologically. After all, has not the “Church Triumphant” put suffering behind it in the sacrifice of Jesus?

While all moral injury is suffering, not all suffering is moral injury. There is a spectrum from moral stress to moral injury, which is not always easily defined. Caregivers are specifically subject to moral stress and sometimes even moral injury. Many of the issues they face in determining the best care and providing adequate attention can evolve into deep moral conflicts. Caregiving in a situation such as Alzheimer’s, when a loved one may not only lose memory but also lose touch with current reality, weighs heavily on the caregiver. Under those circumstances, moral stress in inevitable.

New and continuing research on Moral Injury and avenues to treatment can help pastoral communities begin to understand and address the complex issue of moral injury/spiritual trauma. This research can begin to assist faith communities in accomplishing their already defined mission; helping all souls achieve their full potential in God's creation.

As Volunteers of America continues “to reach and uplift all people and bring them to the active knowledge of God,” we continue to attempt to understand and address the intense suffering that defies simple solutions. As we offer care, we want to provide all people with the opportunity that our founders staked out in 1896: a chance for wholeness and place in the Kingdom of God. While we do this from a Christian perspective, we do not believe that God excludes anyone from grace. Our challenge is to awaken each individual's own faith walk to wherever place that journey may lead them.

Understanding and addressing moral injury may be a means to addressing the divide between psychology and religion. We may finally come to realize that they are different sides of one coin and helping severely traumatized individuals will require assistance from both. An individual may have issues that psychology can address, but the faith community must embrace it's role in the mysteries of existence that only faith can perceive. Our role as a Church is to welcome each person into community and confirm that he or she is an individual of worth, is a member of the human family, and someone who has a right to a place to call their own.

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Harry Quiett is Vice President, Ministry Department, for Volunteers of America.