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Moral Imagination and "Unhope" After Trauma

The greater and lesser hopes of trauma survivors.

Key points

  • Moral imagination involves a change in both the sense of self and other. It leads to a new clarity about mutual dependence and responsibility.
  • Moral Imagination incorporates well-being of others into a sense of self.
  • Trauma shatters belief systems and calls forth a new imagination through engagement with mentors and guides.

Over the years, I’ve had a recurring dream: I’m in a poorly lit, makeshift operating room standing in front of a battered body. I am not a surgeon. I don’t know what to do. But something has to be done. With dread, straining not to close my eyes, I cut into the patient’s chest. Just when it’s too much to bear, I see the heart, red, beating. I wake up feeling compelled by the need to do something and no way to decide what that “something” should be.

This dream stays with me because it reflects a familiar emotional experience in my work as a clinical psychologist: every time I sit down to meet someone suffering from PTSD, I wince in anticipation of the tragedy and violence I’m going to hear about, only to be humbled by the profound caring that emanates from my patients despite their hardships. And with that, they show what has to be done.

My curiosity led me to interview others who I call "menders" outside my clinical practice. Their stories confirmed that while the modern view of PTSD represents major progress toward understanding the impact of violence, its focus on anxiety leads to a soulless, medicalized diagnosis that doesn’t reflect the scope of their experience. In contrast, "menders’" moral responsibility exhibits a profound capacity to heal both the self and the world based on a heritage of compassion.

Trauma survivors face a perplexing choice: They can attempt to return to an earlier reality–a time when they felt independent and safe–or they can face a new one based on common vulnerability. It is a moral reckoning that involves moral imagination.

Edmund Burke introduced the concept of moral imagination in his 1789 book Reflections of a Revolution in France. A peculiarity of moral imagination is that it involves a change in both the sense of self and other. It leads to a new clarity about mutual dependence and responsibility.

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. told the American Psychological Association of the many faces of injustice the country faced, pulling from the Civil Rights struggle the need for psychologists to be creative in reconsidering their narratives:

You who are in the field of psychology have given us a great word. It is the word maladjusted. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. [I say] men and women should be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries

And through such creative maladjustment, we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

King’s moral imagination, born in response to the burden of centuries-old violence and degrading trauma, led to its natural product: hope. The moral imagination of "menders" follows a similar path from suffering to hope.

In 2016, I interviewed Alison Malman, the director and founder of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping students overcome the stigma of mental illness.

When Alison was a college freshman, her older brother, Brian committed suicide. At the funeral, Alison realized that few of Brian’s close friends knew about his depression. Stigma had kept him from seeking the understanding and support that could have saved his life.

When she returned to school, Alison stood at a student activity fair with a handwritten pamphlet addressing the need to understand mental illness among students. Nineteen years later, Active Minds has more than 600 chapters on campuses across the United States, reaching more than 1.9 million people annually.

I asked Alison how she emerged from her own grief to care for others.

Did she figure this out with help in therapy? “I was in therapy,” she said, “but no, I never brought it up; it didn’t fit into how therapy would typically work.

“As soon as Brian died, I knew I wanted to do something about it. I wish everybody could experience this, if they’ve experienced such a traumatic event, because it gives you something to hold onto, to be positive about.”

How did she explain this urge to do something?

I guess my question is, how could you not? I was baffled by the fact that Brian had experienced this traumatic experience in his life, and I learned that it was not atypical for kids my age and that I had to teach myself that. It blew my mind that other people weren’t doing it, and so somebody had to do it so that other people like Brian knew that they were alone.

It’s funny, because there are a number of people who have told me, ‘What you’re doing is so great.’ it’s only when people tell me things like that, that it occurs to me that not everyone would do this. It still to me is a no-brainer. Brian went through hell, and he didn’t need to, so why isn’t anybody else doing this? All right, I’ll do it. The word ‘care’ isn’t part of that thought process.

My eyes opened to the problem and my eyes opened to myself.

Philosophers have dwelled on this mutuality between the self and the fragility of others. Gabriel Marcel put it as “I hope in thee for us.”

Elena Pulcini saw vulnerability as a given in life, “an original given from which we cannot escape.”

In the works of Emmanuel Levinas, this vulnerability showed us the burden of the other as well as the primary opportunity to become oneself “in each other’s hands, at each other’s mercy.”

Alison entered therapy after her brother died. She never spoke of her moral imagination–of her ambition to care for and educate others. Yet the experience of trauma allowed her to imagine herself deeply in the experience of others. That leap of moral imagination provides a hope in and through others that no one can achieve alone.

Meanwhile, clinicians like me often believe that anxiety reduction provides the best hope for our patients. But, compared to the hope that Malmon nurtured with her college friends in honor of Brian and on behalf of college students everywhere, the therapeutic hope represents a limited imagination, one that returns the person to the promise of an independent self still at risk in her isolation—a soulless hope that might be called “unhope.”1

Source: Lothar Dietrich/Pixabay
Moral Imagination connects self to others.
Source: Lothar Dietrich/Pixabay

In the face of violence, therapists, like many caring others, want to make the injury disappear even though it cannot be forgotten. The therapeutic hope turns on denial about our mutual dependence in the face of danger and injustice. Its "unhope," like the hope of politicians and leaders, promises a return to decency and safety that has already been shown to the victim as illusory. It conceals an allegiance to self-serving–as opposed to other-serving–imagination.

The personal hope of "menders," realized in service of others, is honest about our frailty and hopeful about the promise of repair.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

This post is part 4 in a series of articles on Menders. To read this series from the beginning, click here.


[1] Jill Graper Hernandez. Gabriel Marcel’s Ethics of Hope; Evil, God, and Virtue. Continuum International Publishing. 2011.