-Speak the Truth
The first step to healing well from moral injury is to practice vulnerable, creative expression either through writing or conversations with someone who won’t judge us.
In the previous lesson, I introduced four components, or “agreements,” that are elements of healing. The first agreement is precise speech. In many creation stories, the figure representing God has the ability to create using speech.
When we first go through a traumatic event, and experience moral injury, we have built-in mechanisms to cope with the blow. These may be self-isolation, avoidance, depression and anxiety (yes, these feelings are temporary coping strategies), selective amnesia, dissociation, and stress eating, to name a few. We do need these immediate coping strategies, but staying in that place, that half-truth, for too long can be damaging. The coping mechanisms can get “stuck” in our biology and lead to disease and disorder.
Our cells are protein factories, and the proteins affect our long-term health. Which proteins our cells produce depends on the signal they receive from our emotional conditions, which again come from how we think. And, roughly speaking, how we think is based on our worldview, our moral value structure. Let’s take it from the top: the state of our moral values informs our thoughts; our thoughts inform our emotions; our emotions are translated into chemicals via the brain; those chemicals tell our cells how to interpret and “express” our DNA; then proteins create states of sickness or health depending on which ones are activated in the short and long term.
When we are stuck in old thought patterns, we can literally think ourselves sick, changing the structure of our bodies.
Following a moral injury, if we choose the path of chronic coping instead of the hard path of healing, it can lead us to PTS. As we’ll see later, the nature of the hard path has been told to us over the centuries through myths and archetypal heroes.
The layout of the keyboards we use with our computers is called “QWERTY” because of the order of the first six letter keys. It’s actually a relic of 19th-century technology. When typewriters were first invented, the typebars attached to the keys would often entangle if two keys right next to each other were pressed too quickly. So, common pairs of letters, like “st,” could easily cause a jam on a keyboard where those were placed close together. The solution was to invent a layout that spread these keys apart.
So the QWERTY configuration was a coping device for the best technology of the time. But we’re not in that time anymore. We could reinvent the keyboard layout for greater efficiency, but this layout became so common, changing the standard would require a collective rewiring of how we write today. We’d have to undo and relearn the memory embedded in our fingers.
It might be too late to reconfigure everyone’s keyboards, but if we’re still leaning on coping devices that were appropriate for an earlier age, we are stuck in a state of half-truth. We have to undo and relearn the patterns of our bodies in order to live out our whole-truth.
We can do this by the disciplines of repetition and intention. That’s what it takes to write a new destiny for ourselves.
We’ll get more into what these disciplines are in upcoming lessons, but let’s continue on what the first steps might be in undoing a moral injury. We might start with an internal reconstruction of how the world operates on a moral level and where we fit into that.
Agreement #1: Be precise in your speech.
Tell the truth and be disciplined in telling the truth. If we are stuck in old narratives that should be updated, we have gotten used to only speaking half-truth. Half-truth then lives in our bodies, as discussed before, and we become half-healthy, which is really just a state of a slow death. We are not whole.
In the later episodes of the 2016 comedy series The Good Place, the characters, who we can say represent both humanity and the angelic/demonic counsels, struggle with a moral dilemma. They realize that no one is “making it to heaven” anymore based purely on meritocracy (if you have enough good deeds in column A, and fewer bad deeds in column B, you could go to heaven). Up until the 16th century, people were living in small tribes, and theoretically, our actions affected only the people within that group. So, to decide which column our actions fit into, all we needed to do was to notice how it affected the people right next to us.
The problem started when people became more connected on a global scale. In a globalized world, each moral decision has such a complex and interconnected cocktail of consequences that it’s impossible to make black and white decisions. Only through the consciousness of a truly all-knowing being can decisions ever be black and white. And that being is not us.
While not exactly a paragon of theology, I think the silly series illustrates a deep truth. At some level, every decision we make is moral, because every decision we make affects someone else. Maybe not right now, but small decisions accumulate. Our decisions are ripples in the world. And the best thing we can do to be good is by making decisions out of love, faith, conviction, trust, and genuine compassion.
Unfortunately, even if we did act out of pure goodwill, someone or something can still get hurt, or worse. When our sense of how the world ought to respond to what we consider to be goodwill behavior is obliterated, this is the moment of moral injury. It’s a shattering realization that what we thought were black and white decisions are no longer. We have to reconstruct a better framework to account for the existence of serious moral dilemmas. It doesn’t mean we have them all solved, but it means we have room to not know the right answers sometimes and to know that sometimes doing our best is truly the best we can do, even if it does seem that at least in the short run the consequences are, let’s say, unsavory.
One way to take a step back from all these immediate unwanted consequences is to simply see things on a bigger timeline. From that perspective, we can begin to see that there is no good without the bad. There is no journey without something to contend against. Notice that even in the Garden of Eden story, before Adam and Eve sinned, there already existed the serpent in the garden. That serpent represents a being of contention, a decision point that reveals our character.
When I had a dream of running a 100-mile race, I came across the saying that such a race was like “life in a day.” Peaks, valleys, sunrise and sunset, dry noon heat and a freezing wet midnight, side cramps and strong legs, gut rot, the best food you’ve ever eaten, the freedom of prolonged mobility on your own legs, and the resistance that meets you at every step; it’s all there in a 100-mile footrace. Life is composed of all the above and there is the very real possibility for failure, but you do it anyway.
It’s the same way in war, except that in war, it’s “life in a day” every day, for the entire duration of a deployment. In war, gut rot is the least of our worries. We have to voluntarily engage in actions that will inevitably lead to suffering for both ourselves and our battle buddies. We may have to do something that doesn’t fall in line with our initial value structure for the sake of keeping our battle buddies alive. Such violation of personal boundaries can be done out of love yet still on its surface violate the moral compass which may have guided us well earlier in life.
Causing suffering in such a context is not necessarily mutually exclusive to loving our brothers and sisters. Conquering evil demands love and love demands we suffer for the sake of freedom and peace. It’s wisdom earned through discipline that distinguishes between what it means to suffer needlessly (which may not be different than hell itself) or to allow or even cause suffering for the sake of loving your brother or sister.
We understand this apparent paradox through the myths and stories that have been carried on through generations. These stories contain timeless archetypes that have helped drive human behavior for as long as stories have existed.
What we might say, then, is that at the root of moral injury lies our attempt at loving others intersecting with purposeless suffering. It’s a collision of our love with a slice of hell. Moral injury is a broken heart. Healing is realizing that a broken heart is a feature of human experience, not a flaw.
When war and love collide, fertile ground is created either for new life or gradual death long after the fighting is over. To be able to operate in that hazardous but enlightening in-between space, we need to recognize and understand the nature of it.
Let’s take a breath and look at an example from the natural world in this clip from Planet Earth II.
In the clip, a freshly hatched iguana finds itself surrounded by a nest of snakes. In the lizard’s first moments of life, it immediately has to run or get eaten. It’s bitten and caught in the snakes’ coils and yet miraculously manages to escape with its life intact. In its shell, it never needed to run, claw, or bite to survive, and that strategy worked as long as it stayed in the shell. But answering the call to adventure requires breaking away from the safety net. After a narrow escape from the snakes, it joins the other iguanas and has the chance to venture out into the world to live its life. But it could only make it out of there because it was able to meet the violence of the snakes with its own violence of action.
That’s life. Snakes are everywhere, within the human heart and without, lurking in their underground spaces, popping their heads up unexpectedly. We need to acknowledge the true danger of these predatory creatures before we know how to vanquish them. The snake, or what is commonly conceptualized in our culture as a dragon (a combination of all predatory creatures, see the next lesson), can destroy us with its venom, fire, and talons. But if we defeat and integrate, we’re rewarded with unimaginable amounts of gold.
The dragon is the evil that is capable of manifesting itself in any human heart when the ego drives dominate. The naive doesn’t acknowledge this evil, and believes that it’s always safe to offer and want love. This is only a partial truth. For the cynical, on the other hand, the unvanquished dragon represents all of reality; life is evil and the humans in it are nothing but toxic creatures. When our love is met with rejection, it can be hard not to turn to cynicism. But the idea that love is always rejected is also only a partial truth.
The whole truth is that love will always bear risk, but taking that risk is better than losing out on the chance of love.
A profound transformation happens once we realize that we’re capable of dark acts that go against what we were taught about being a good person. We can only be fully integrated humans when we can leverage our power for harm into a power that reinvigorates the community. We’ll look at many more examples of what that looks like for the rest of this lesson and into the next.
What makes a hero?
To do this work of integration, we have to realize that darkness is a piece of us. A good person is not a tame person, but a person who acknowledges their dangerous side and has it under control. This is what psychologist Carl Jung would refer to as integrating the “shadow.” You can also see this symbolism in the popular Harry Potter series, as Harry realizes he has a piece of Voldemort, the chief antagonist, in him. It is only much later in the series, when he voluntarily gives up his life for his friends, that he can confront the ugly darkness within. He becomes integrated, and can act as the hero, when he becomes aware of his dark side and knows what to do with it.
In the very first movie, Harry discovers that he can speak with snakes and he identifies with the boa at the zoo pictured in the scene in the video below. “Bred in captivity,” neither the future hero nor the snake knew their parents. One of the dominant themes in Harry Potter is his reconciliation with his parents over the course of his story. Even though his parents weren’t alive, he restores the spirit of his ancestors in his present storyline and honors his lineage by acting out the hero’s journey by making sacrifices for the ones he loves.
A major part of integrating the shadow is for the son or daughter to realize where they came from so they can better realize where they are going, even if where they came from was the proverbial snake pit—absent or abusive parents, mixed families, linages of turmoil, violence, backstabbing, and so on. We all come from essentially a family ridden with snakes, but if we know how to communicate with our linage, it means we might be able to break the cycle of negativity in our own lives.
Voldemort was able to consolidate his power because most of the characters in the Wizarding World refused to speak his name. That’s a bad idea. We’ll explore this in more depth in the next lesson on dragons, but suffice to say, keeping our past hidden in the shadows instead of integrating that shadow allows it to grow into a much bigger and deadlier snake.
So Harry’s hero journey is characterized by him getting to know his parents better so that the “sins of the father” might not be passed down to the son. Can you think of any other popular movie series where the main character has to come face-to-face with his lineage? Perhaps one Luke Skywalker with his father on the planet Dagobah? Keep these tropes in mind as we continue to explore story, recovery, and integration. Meanwhile, we’ll explore one more example: Braveheart.
This movie has become such a legendary classic because of how well it embodies the proverbial archetypes and struggles of mankind. It opens up with childhood trauma, tells a story of secret love, paradise lost, murder, triumph over the tyrannical army, betrayal, paradise found, and sacrifice for a transcendent purpose.
The hero of the story, William Wallace, represents the uniting spirit that sacrifices worldly possessions for freedom. He fights to replace force and tyranny with courage. The spirit of the tyrannical king invaded both sides represented in the characters of the two deteriorating kings, one losing his vision, the other losing his ability to speak. Vision, or faith in something bigger than you, and true speech are those components of the “spirit” that revitalize society. In mythological terms, the revitalizing spirit is represented through the sacrificial son and the inspiration (to inspire means to give the breath of life to) of the mother or other feminine character.
In William’s fight to free his homeland Scotland from the tyranny of the English king, he has to incorporate his savage side. He knows his savage strength and how to use it. To know what to do with this darkness can be seen in the Greek word “praus.” It means “disciplined strength.” It’s the image of a warhorse with a bit in its mouth, or an angry Scot protecting his village. It’s power under control, discipline that leads to freedom.
The feminine spirit plays a vital role in William’s life and journey. It was the spirit of his first love, Murron, that kept William going in the darkest hours. Our hero would not have been able to accomplish his heroic tasks without the life-giving feminine spirit*. It keeps the masculine, savage energy aimed in the right direction and controlled for the sake of freedom over tyranny. The positive female element makes the masculine element aware of what he’s doing; it is the spirit that brings consciousness to humanity. Like when the Queen of Whales effectively brings shame to the dying English king by making him realize that the way he led his life only leads to ruin.
*I should note here that the masculine and feminine spirits don’t really mean man and woman, they are symbolic tropes. A man can embody the female spirit in his acts of tenderheartedness, for example, and a woman can properly use her aggression to protect the family (don’t get between mama bear and her cubs).
Even though William ultimately gave up his life, the spirit which he fought for had been so revivified by the way he lived his life that the rest of the country was effectively redeemed as a result.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against negative spiritual strongholds. The enemy was not the English king, but the tyrannical spirit he embodied. You don’t destroy that spirit by killing a human; you vanquish it by including the archetypal hero, by laying down your life, so to speak, for the life of the spirit of freedom.
And this battle, that spiritual sacrifice, must first take place within ourselves, because we are all to some degree vulnerable to that dark spirit. It is a battle, and by its definition, full of danger and the real threat of death. The best we can do, then, for us to be able to best answer that call to adventure, is to have a brave heart.
To be the hero or heroine of our stories means knowing that the risk of love is worth the reward of reconciliation and new life. Even if life has handed us a truly terrifying hand, even if rejection becomes a well-known feeling, it won’t keep us from becoming the heroes of our story as long as we’re willing to speak life into the cracks that trauma creates – to accept the cracks as real, to forgive the world for its pain, and to take responsibility for making our corner of the world a better place.
This may all still seem somewhat abstract, but as you follow along with the course, you’ll find that the action steps and exercises presented can be linked to these stories, and give you a deeper meaning and understanding of what you’re being asked to do.
Deep breath. We’ll see you in the next lesson.
Today’s Assignment – Journal Entry
- Was there a time when you felt as though the moral understanding you had of the world was blown apart?
- Describe a “dragon” that you’ve faced.
- If naivety and cynicism existed on a spectrum, each being at either end, how would you describe where you are on that spectrum?
We’re going back to the basics today with the classic push-up. There’s a reason this exercise is found in just about any exercise program. If it’s been a while since you did your last one, you can brush up on the movement by watching this video.
If push-ups seem unchallenging to you, no problem. Do 100 in four minutes or less. And I want to see that chest touch the ground!
If it’s been a while, aim to do 40 total push-ups in your choice of sets and reps.