On moral distress and futility

Today, Dec. 2, 2015, news and social media feeds are filled with headlines like “the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year.” With 14 people killed and 17 injured in San Bernadino, California, one can’t help but feel helpless in the face of continuous tragedy.

I turned to the wisdom of Roshi Joan Halifax, Founding Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who was interviewed on On Being with Krista Tippett in 2013. The interview is as relevant as ever, and the following is excerpted on the theme of moral distress, outrage, futility, and the range of responses we have to the pain of witnessing suffering.

Krista’s question was prompted by the overwhelming amount of terrible news and vivid pictures we get bombarded with on a daily basis. She asks:

So the question that’s in this room and I think is out there in the world and in this country right now is how do we find the courage? How do we heal enough? How do we be present to [suffering] and not be overwhelmed by it?

Joan Halifax answers, saying that in response to such bombardment, we enter into a state of “moral distress and futility,” and the moral distress requires us to feel that something needs to happen. She goes on:

“Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can’t do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don’t want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze.

And I think a lot of this world that is hooked up in the media right now, that a good part of the globe is going numb. And I don’t really agree… with the term ‘compassion fatigue.’ I think what we’re seeing actually is not compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there’s a resonance, but we’re not able to stabilize ourselves when we’re exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience.”



Why a “None” Does Interfaith

Repost from IFYC Alumni Blog | Dec. 1, 2015

Being involved with interfaith engagement is a deeply personal adventure into one’s own spiritual or religious tradition. Working with and learning from people of various faiths and commitments has caused me to delve deeper into my own beliefs and values. I’m motivated to articulate my beliefs in a way that tells the story of why I do this work, and why it matters to me as someone who identifies as a “none” (a person not affiliated with any religious tradition).  In the course of my journey I’ve developed an ethic of interfaith cooperation that is influenced not only by my own perspective as a non-religious person with a Catholic upbringing, but by the philosophies of those who I have crossed paths with over the years.  These four concepts from very different worldviews make up part of my moral and philosophical guidance for interfaith cooperation.

The Christian story of the Good Samaritan tells us that we, as Christians and as human beings, need to not only welcome those who are different from us, but also treat them with a transformative, radical love.  Our neighbor is not someone to be ignored, but to be brought in to our hearts and homes.

The concept of Ubuntu, a long-running humanist philosophy originating in South Africa, recognizes the shared humanity we must seek to see in one another, and embraces our interconnected fates: “I am because you are, you are because I am.”

The Jewish phrase tikkun olam means to “repair the world”, and represents the impetus to promote justice on earth.   According to Jewish tradition it is humanity’s job—collectively—to put back together the shards of a world broken into countless pieces.

The Sikh practice of chardi kala says Sikhs should keep a joyful, optimistic outlook even in times of strife. This concept is a reminder to create peace and better the world around us in this uplifting and positive way.

The Catholic theologian Thomas Berry once said, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” My calling toward interfaith cooperation was not truly understood until I could hear it through the language of my friends and neighbors. To welcome and love the “other,” to seek shared humanity and understanding, to strive to work together, and to do all of this in joy and delight, are the lessons I take from these worldviews and the reasons I am able to sustain myself in this work.  Through engaging with the community around me, I have learned how to be more authentically me.