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    When Following the News Becomes Too Distressing

    On moral distress, powerless responsibility, and reclaiming hope.

    By Cynthia R. Wallace

    June 3, 2021
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    If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us are very, very tired. After more than a year of ups and downs, all of it has again begun to feel like too much. Some start to speak of the pandemic in past tense, but in Canada where I live, as in Brazil and India and parts of the United States, new Covid variants fuel exponential infection while vaccine supplies follow lines of global inequity. Ethiopia is mired in intractable conflict, with refugees caught in the fray. Another Black person has been killed by police; another mother mourns her precious child. The list goes on and on, a wilderness of sorrows.

    In this wilderness I feel foggy-headed, exhausted, speechless in my anger. With the Psalmist I mutter, “I am numb with pain, exhausted, and completely crushed. My groans come from an anguished heart” (Psalm 38:8). I want to withdraw, distract myself, winnow my life down to the tiniest pillowy focus on self-comfort, fully disengage from caring.

    There’s a name for this feeling: it’s moral distress. Moral distress, writes Joan Halifax in Standing at the Edge, “arises when we are aware of a moral problem and we determine a remedy, but are unable to act on it because of internal or external constraints.”

    I think moral distress is an experience many of us share as we watch in horror while those who have the power to mandate pandemic precautions, share vaccines around the globe, maintain fair governance, broker peace, and address systemic injustices fail to do so. It happens at the local, personal level too: we try to spread the truth and watch while loved ones fall prey to conspiracies; we try to abide by public health guidelines and watch while neighbors determine themselves exempt, their personal freedom more important than collective wellbeing. We live within a democratic system, and so we try to take responsibility: we raise our voices, donate our dollars, gather our bodies in the streets, and yet we watch in horror as the death counts rise.

    We cling to hope and keep at it, using whatever influence we have, the gifts within our powers, to do our part, and still we witness unfathomable human suffering and loss. The poet Adrienne Rich calls this experience powerless responsibility: we feel we must act, but we lack the clout and resources to effect the necessary change. We turn to prayer and seem to hear God’s silence, adding painful questions about divine power and goodness to the mix. Eventually it becomes too much, and we find our hearts, our minds, our bodies in genuine distress.

    Powerless responsibility and moral distress wear us down. They steal our joy, our stamina, our sense of what could be. They tempt us to a narrower focus, a path of least resistance, an isolating retreat to lick our wounds.

    So what are we to do?

    full train of people reading newspapers

    Photograph by Peter Lawrence

    To begin, we name it. We are experiencing moral distress related to a sense of powerless responsibility. To name these constellations of experience – the feelings of sadness, despair, anger, betrayal, hopelessness, numbness, guilt, and/or shame – is to begin to see the experience for what it is, and not as some pathology or deficit within our own psyches. Just the act of finding language can help us clarify our mental fog.

    Naming these experiences also allows us to find communities who share them. Social support – giving and receiving compassion and attentive listening, childcare and casseroles, the material and immaterial gifts of real mutual aid – goes a long way in reminding us that we are not alone in our moral sensibilities, even if we feel disempowered.

    Halifax, writing about working with morally distressed nurses, also advocates for practices that grow moral resiliency. Research suggests that cognitive processing therapy can be helpful, as can prayer and meditation and explicitly articulating, perhaps even writing down, our moral principles, recommitting ourselves to the core of what we believe to be good and true. Storytelling has a similar effect: recalling past triumphs of justice and goodness grows our sense of what could be. As Walter Brueggemann says, “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” Especially undertaken in community, such storytelling can feed not just our healing but our imaginations of what is possible, strengthening us for the long road together as we join in God’s project of restoration.

    On this long road, it can be empowering to engage in minute, concrete acts of resistance and renewal, as Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest in their book Burnout: to find where we can exercise the power that we have. These acts can happen at both the macro and the micro level: Contacting elected officials like the parable’s persistent widow. Practicing patience in our households (as I did with my children, who interrupted seventy times as I tried to write this essay), which can grow our own capacity for long-haul patience and raise a generation that knows the good of gentleness and mutual care. Joining a local justice-oriented group of activists. Writing a weekly letter to an elder in a care home where visits are still limited. Making something beautiful for beauty’s sake, like a cake or a painting or a garden or a pot of petunias.

    All of these efforts – finding community with folks who share our experience, providing each other emotional and material support, cultivating spiritual practices and clear thinking about our own moral commitments, seeking out therapy (and helping others access it), engaging in concrete acts of resistance and renewal – will help us face the truth about what is going on without turning away.

    This is no time for ignoring the injustices, the losses, and the grief we are experiencing, or for plastering over the pain with religious platitudes. Those of us who are people of faith may be tempted, as Brueggemann writes in his book Like Fire in the Bones, by an “immobilizing ideology of polite prayer – denied pain – domesticated hope.” But healing from moral distress and powerless responsibility isn’t about denying, retreating, or giving up. It is about tending a wound that allows us, in Valarie Kaur’s memorable words, to breathe and push through pain to help deliver the other world – the world of flourishing, justice, equity – that’s possible, glowing incandescent on the horizon. We catch glimpses of this other possible world, Brueggemann reminds us, when we follow the prophet Jeremiah in “a sequence of risky prayer-grief-new possibility.”

    As we coalesce around this shared distress and recall the faithfulness of God, who is not slack concerning the promised healing of all creation, the love of Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being, and the power of the Spirit, whose presence strengthens us for the journey, we find that we are by no means alone. We look around and recognize in each other not just grief but commitment, a shared core of moral integrity – which might just lead to moral courage – which might, itself, lead us back to the sustaining energy of hope.

    Contributed By

    Cynthia R. Wallace is assistant professor of English at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, and author of Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering. Columbia University Press, 2016.

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