Our Aching Conscience: Moral Injury and the Work That Reconnects

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by Molly Brown

Honoring our pain for the world in an interconnected world includes honoring the pain of moral injury that we all share, consciously or not.  Here’s how the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University defines and describes moral injury: 

Moral injury is the damage done to our conscience or moral compass when we perpetrate, witness, or fail to prevent acts that violate our moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct. 

Moral Injury breaks the spirit. It makes people question their ability to do the right thing and leaves them contaminated with the feeling that they’re “bad,” “disgusting,” or “beyond redemption.” They may feel that they have an evil twin lurking inside. Moral Injury often leads to self-harm. People turn to alcohol, drugs, and self-isolation to avoid the pain of their feelings. (1)

Military service people have suffered moral injury in wars and military actions for centuries, but only recently has this wounding been recognized as distinct from PTSD (although it can accompany PTSD) and as needing spiritual healing.  This is an issue so close to my heart–the harm we do collectively sending soldiers off to war, into situations where they have to violate their moral values to follow orders or survive.  Are we not then complicit in the moral injury they suffer?

Many indigenous cultures recognize moral injury, calling it by other names.  They recognize when a member has fallen out of harmony and needs to be restored through ceremony, chanting, drumming, and community support.  

The Moral Injury Group at the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center offers a 12-week program that works with veterans, both individually and in group sessions, to help them explore the moral and spiritual dimension of their military experience, and appropriately address moral and spiritual pain and struggle. (2)

Many of us, both soldiers and civilians, are suffering moral injury by witnessing—and in some cases participating in—acts of violence and oppression.

In today’s world, we all live within systems of oppression, racism, exploitation, extraction, and consumption that likely violate our deepest moral values if we allow ourselves to take it in.  Understanding the concept of moral injury can reveal how many of us, both soldiers and civilians, are suffering moral injury by witnessing—and in some cases participating in—acts of violence and oppression.  When we learn about the many environmental assaults going on today, do we not suffer moral injury?  

The Water Protectors engaged in civil disobedience at the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota have been subjected to “harm compliance” by police, who inflict extreme pain and injury on peaceful protestors to force them to give up.  I believe all parties involved—Water Protectors, police, journalists, and other observers—are likely suffering moral injury as a result. 

In the Work That Reconnects, as we honor our pain for the world, let’s explore ways we can bring moral injury into awareness and into practices like the Truth Mandala.  Simply explaining the concept may be liberating for people, giving them a name for an inchoate feeling they’ve carried within them. Offering community support for talking about the moral injury they’ve suffered can be a first step to healing.  We can also design community healing rituals to help everyone feel at home once again in the family of all beings.


  1. The Moral Injury Project, Syracuse University. https://moralinjuryproject.syr.edu/about-moral-injury
  2. The Moral Injury Group: https://blogs.va.gov/VAntage/92169/moral-injury-group-place-of-healing-place-of-peace/

Molly Brown co-authored Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to thWork That Reconnects with Joanna Macy and edits Deep Times journal. Molly brings ecopsychology, the Work That Reconnects, and psychosynthesis to her work writing books and essays, teaching on-line courses, phone coaching, talks and workshops. Her six books include Growing Whole: Self-realization for the Great Turning and Lighting a Candle: Collected Reflections on a Spiritual Life. With Mutima Imani and Constance Washburn, Molly co-directs Spiral Journey, a Facilitator Development Program for the Work That Reconnects   MollyYoungBrown.com.

Recorded by Rebecca Selove


2 thoughts on “Our Aching Conscience: Moral Injury and the Work That Reconnects

  1. Thank you. Molly!

    Your article made this so clear, that which most often in our modern culture goes unnamed. And, there are enormous consequences.

    I find myself in full alignment with a desire and intention to bring it into awareness for myself and others.

    With gratitude,

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