The Legacy Of Silence & Moral Injury
If we don’t write a legacy letter to accompany our wills (our material valuables) and fail to share the contents of the letter in conversation with our families…
If we don’t write a legacy letter to accompany our living wills/health directives (our values and requests regarding our dying and death) and fail to share the contents of the letter in conversation with our families…
We pass down to another generation silence about those most important subjects of our lives. Instead of increased understanding, evidence of caring, and intimacy, the legacy we pass forward is silence: Another generation mired in outdated taboos, without permission to speak or discuss these topics.
About another area of silence, I recently spoke at a Spiritual Wellness Summit for caregivers and military personnel focused on “moral injury,” a term coined only this past decade and new to me.
“Moral injury” has most commonly come to mean the transgression, the violation, of what is right, what one has long held to be sacred—a core belief or moral code—and thus wounding or, in the extreme, mortally wounding the psyche, soul, or one’s humanity.”
– Robert Emmet Meagher
In the hierarchical military, moral wounds occur when a person with authority orders you to do something that violates your moral code (easy to imagine when deployed in a war zone). Symptoms from the injury include: Inability to trust after your values have been betrayed, loss of community and sense of belonging, isolation, and loss of purpose (opportunity to serve others beyond self). It’s no wonder that the military suffers from extremely high rates of depression and suicide (20 suicides every day in 2018).
The crippling effects of moral wounds are not suffered by the military alone, most of us have experienced such injuries in the course of our lives. For the most part we are unaware that we are carrying moral wounds from childhood and adolescence. Our abilities to trust, feel safe in community, a sense of belonging, being known and understood, of having a clear sense of purpose, and even a belief in a Source greater than ourselves that we can count on, have been damaged and diminished without our being aware of it.
Because we can’t really know another’s experience, I asked everyone at the Spiritual Wellness Summit to write a paragraph about a moral injury they had themselves suffered, and then to share their story with a stranger. Both military and helping professionals experienced surprise at what they discovered, the power of writing it down, and the relief and sense of healing resulting from reading aloud and being heard.
“Our listening creates a sanctuary for the homeless parts within another person.”
– Rachel Naomi Remen
- As you search your memories for moral injuries, you may discover them by tracing vague feelings of fear or anxiety that you experience that surprise you because they seem disconnected from the present and/or seem out of proportion to present experience. Take some time to reflect and write about moral injuries you have experienced and how they have affected your life.
- Put your writing away overnight or for a few days, and stay aware of glimpses of understanding that come to you as time passes.
- Choose a trusted person with whom you can share this very personal new knowledge about yourself. The person may be a friend with whom you have a long history, a therapist, or a cleric. Clarify whether you only want the person to witness your letter silently and privately, or whether you want the person to witness you reading your letter aloud, and whether you are open to talking about it. Begin your letter with these decisions, including that you ask the person to hold your trust inviolate.
- Then write your definition of moral injury.
- Continue your letter describing your injury as you re-member it, and how you understand its ramifications.
- Share your letter.
- Use your reflection journal to record about your sharing, and any new understanding, awareness, or freedom you’ve had from this experience.
May each of you and all of us in the human community find through legacy writing a new or renewed sense of peace, of trust, and healing.
– Rachael Freed
Rachael Freed, LICSW, senior fellow, Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, University of Minnesota, is the author of Your Legacy Matters, Women’s Lives, Women’s Legacies and Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient. Rachael Freed firstname.lastname@example.org and www.life-legacies.com