4 min read

Insult to injury

Two summers ago I was recovering from a concussion and spent a lot of time alone in a dark room listening to Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. There is something about the smooth cadence of Oprah’s speech and the thoughtful but not too thoughtful content that made the stream the kind of ideal content to play in the background when you’re healing from a traumatic brain injury.

In last week’s newsletter, we all quit and learned about moral injury. “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.” In the United States, moral injury is often referenced to the experiences of veterans or survivors to war with language that creates a false psychological distance from trauma as something that happens in foreign countries and geographically far from home.

But the war has always been at home.

This pandemic and last summer’s uprisings against racial injustice were collective experiences in complicated moral injuries, with no containers or structures to embark on a process toward healing. We lack language and dialogue about what moral injuries cost us, what we need and resources for healing. It was, as things in America usually go, left up to individuals to chart a course to care and safety. And how people progressed depended mostly, as things in America usually go, on their race, existing support networks, class and community.

While I was recovering from my concussion, one of the cognitive loads I could not carry anymore was doing significant emotional labor for other people. The Black girl mami chip broke in my brain computer and happily so (one could argue I didn’t really have one in the first place but now it was g-o-n-e!). As injuries go, certain things did not work anymore and this summer, as America’s racial traumas hit us unrelentingly and every Black person I know started to receive a surge of texts from white friends, I was reminded of my emotional labor ban.

Acknowledging injury was an acknowledgement of my humanity and that something had changed me. It was a cognitive break to save my head and heart. It was what I credit with helping me not just recover but with significant time, come back sharper, faster and better than ever. It is something I believe we are all due.

Injury is something you cannot heal by ignoring that it is there.

This week, I was advising a friend who is a new CEO to a hot healthcare company. We were talking about the pandemic and business and “coming back” and he was looking for counsel on how to do right by his people. It was strange to have to explain the concept of healing and a traumatized workforce to a leader of a healthcare company but here we are...

“I don’t have a clear roadmap for you,” I told him. “But I think the most important thing you can do is acknowledge the physical and mental toll of what we’re in, to do so repeatedly and in a nonjudgmental way and to make many many many different and diverse resources available. You have to keep doing this again and again and again. And you should probably get in community with other leaders in your position so you don’t feel so alone in doing this because if you feel like holding this standard will cost you something— money, access, standing with your board — I do not think you will continue to do it and this forfeiture of care will cause more harm.”

Business as usual is no more. You cannot unring the bell. One could argue that this is not the job of a CEO, but that is the thing about moral leadership— soul care is no one’s “job”. Capitalism is its own moral injury and abandoning each other ultimately costs us more. To skip all of that is an insult to injury.

The world won’t give us space to heal from injury, we have to claim it for ourselves.

Earlier this week I had the Super Soul Sunday podcast playing in the background while working and was reminded of the August I spent healing in a dark room listening to this stream. Oprah was interviewing the late, great Cicely Tyson in an interview only released after her recent passing in late January.

Tyson is famous for refusing roles that she considered detrimental to the character of Black women and for informing the (mostly white) people sending these roles to her why she was declining. In terms of power dynamics, this was a feedback loop entrenched Hollywood elites never experienced and as a result Tyson was often blocked and black listed from future roles. But for Tyson, a Black woman who has endured tremendous racial discrimination and harm, this practice honored her moral principles.

What has it cost you to have this standard of what you would and would not play? Has that cost you?

Cicely Tyson:
I would own your house! [laughter]


Cicely Tyson:
"Yes! But I made the decision that when I read a script, either my skin tingled or my stomach churned. When my skin tingled, I knew I had to do it. When my stomach churned, I couldn't do it. I knew I couldn't do it. I knew that whatever monetary gain there was would end up in the psychiatrist's hand. Because I could not live with myself, having done certain things that I found were demeaning to me as a woman first and to the race of people."

Tyson had to acknowledge and hold her humanity because the world would not and could not do it for her. That does not have to remain the case now. We don’t have to stay injured and live as walking wounded. But to live with ourselves and change for the better, we have to acknowledge the injury, tend to our hearts and lead with our healed souls.

This will change us. So, let us be changed.

What has changed in you?

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