-Moral Injury vs PTSD
Post-traumatic Stress cannot be transmuted into post-traumatic growth without a transition from guardedness to trust. Hypervigilance is the opposite of trust; this manifests in the nervous system and severely taxes the body’s sympathetic nervous system as the fight/flight/freeze system is constantly on high alert. Those exposed to a moral injury, without processing through stages of healing and renewal in a time-honored manner, will find false comforts in isolation, recalcitrance, and thick walls around their hearts.
What, then, does it mean to be morally injured? A moral injury is perhaps a better description to the damage done by catastrophe than “trauma” or “PTS.” Curing PTS is a process that must involve one’s psychology and physiology, but also a process that mustn’t be focused on an outcome per se. To find a “cure” is to find a process. “Cure” implies that the wound or sickness has been totally amiloriated and no longer impacts us today. That’s not the point of the healing journey. We can’t be cured from moral injury because we can never go back to the way things were. That healing is more like kintsugi pottery, where the shattered pieces are amended through golden spot welds. The original pot will never be the same but something beautiful can be created by breathing life into the spaces between.
The moral injuring associated with trauma is a puncture wound that requires more than mere epidermal healing. Recall the Skirmish at Weathertop scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. The nature of trauma is captured in just four minutes. It opens with Frodo’s band of hobbits gathered around a campfire cooking a late dinner, or second dinner at that hour. Their idea of how the world works, their worldview you might say, was that lighting fires at night was safe. They had no conception of Ringwraiths.
When the Nazgûl approach, and the fight breaks out, Frodo is stabbed in the shoulder by a Morgul blade. Strider recognizes that he does not have the skills to heal such a wound; those skills are only available through the help of the elves. In Tolkien’s world, the elves represent an eternal, divine-like culture that provides middle-earth with protection from the dark powers.
Despite Frodo’s eventual aid at Rivendell, by the end of the trilogy, the wound never quite heals right. Frodo completes his journey to Mordor and returns home a hero, back to his little Hobbit hole, but never quite rids himself of that thorn in his abdomen, from that moment that the Hobbit’s view of how the world is supposed to operate is obliterated in a single battle atop an ancient ruin.
Moral injury is not something that emerges from an explosion, a sword fight, or a car wreck. Not exactly. The moral injury at Weathertop was the moment the Nazgûl arrived. Why? Because in that moment, so many of the things the Hobbits once thought was true had been shattered. They were betrayed by their own naivety and innocence. The world is truly a dangerous place; we’re not in the Shire anymore and the world in its totality is not the same thing as the Shire.
Moral injury, then, is this realization in a compressed timeline. The world you thought you knew was false and there was such a divide between those things, we can’t trust anything anymore unless we choose to take courage and choose to shoulder the responsibility to carry the ring into Mordor. Another way to think of it is like this: say you have a poorly articulated philosophy of how good and evil operate, but then you experience true malevolence done to you and/or by you, that philosophy is upended and you don’t know what to make of the world anymore.
Of course it’s more complicated than that because people are complicated. But mapping out a journey of how to live well with a puncture wound doesn’t have to be. The first step is putting words to the veil between hypervigilance and learning to trust again.