Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Cindy Wallace was feeling out of sorts. Each new day seemed to bring more bad news, more uncertainty from leaders around the world about how to manage the virus, and more divisive politicking on all sides. In the midst of the unease she was feeling, Wallace was reading Standing at the Edge by Joan Halifax.
“It was in that book that I encountered the idea of moral distress,” Wallace says. “Really simply, moral distress is seeing something that is wrong, having the sense that you could fix it, but you aren’t in a position to do so. Usually, because you lack the power to fix it or make the change that would need to happen. It’s seeing a way forward, but having no power to enact. The term was first coined about nurses in the 1980s, and again about soldiers in the 1990s, who lived with this terrible sense that they couldn’t do anything.”
The idea of moral distress resonated deeply with Wallace.
“I had these moments of frustration about what was happening,” she says. “Watching the challenges of governmental leaders wrestling with questions about whether or not to have restrictions or masking to protect vulnerable people. There was definitely frustration at points, with institutional leaders, and I felt moral distress around that.”
Wallace, who is associate professor of English at St. Thomas More College and the University of Saskatchewan, turned to writing to share her “aha moment” about the dissonance she felt.
“It was this tiny, little idea that I shared as a Facebook post, and a friend suggested I explore moral distress in long-form writing,” Wallace says.
In June 2021, Wallace published an article in Plough magazine, “When following the news becomes too distressing.” Her thoughts on the subject soon gained a national audience. In January of this year, a producer from CBC Radio’s faith program Tapestry emailed Wallace.
“The producer said they had read my article and would like to interview me on the idea of moral distress,” Wallace says. “I explained that I wasn’t an expert on the subject, and they said they were looking for someone to share their personal thoughts and experiences on the idea.”
In early February, she recorded a half-hour interview with Tapestry.
“The host, Mary Hynes, was warm and lovely to talk to,” Wallace says. “We ended up talking about the problem of evil, my experience of hospitalization for my appendicitis, our tiny church plant, and God’s goodness in the face of suffering.”
The interview struck a chord with listeners. After the interview aired, Wallace received emails from people across Canada, from all walks of life.
She says: “People have said, ‘I needed this language; thank you so much.’ Or tell me their stories of their life’s difficulties. Or ask, ‘Where can I read more about this?’ Or share their faith journeys. I’ve heard from a range of people saying, ‘These are the words for this thing I’ve been experiencing.’ ”
While moral distress is not classified as a mental illness on its own, its impact on mental health is notable. Prolonged moral distress can manifest in symptoms similar to that of anxiety or depression.
Wallace’s research on moral distress offers some wisdom on how to move through it in a healthy way. In particular, by naming the experience.
“In the emails that I received after the interview, people said, ‘You know, I had this blend of fatigue, hopelessness, and thought the problem was with me,’ ” she says, adding, “Language is healing; you’re not your own pathology. People need to be seen and validated. We just need to find words for what we’re experiencing.”
For Wallace personally, walking through moral distress has reiterated her belief in the importance of a faithful community.
“That which helps with mental health helps with moral distress,” she says. “I still try to make the change I want to see, even if I don’t think it will do any good. The work of trying to lean toward the world we want reaffirms our own sense of agency; giving in to hopelessness only makes it worse.
“We can also remember parts of the past where things have changed,” she says. “Walter Brueggemann, in his books, talks about how Israel had this remembrance of God’s faithfulness, telling those stories and looking back at the history, things that have shifted. I think the world doesn’t just get better and better, but I see stories of faithfulness of God in movements. I try to seek out communities of shared concern; fellow travellers on the journey. I’ve learned a lot from Black female theologians and womanist theology about community care. Nobody has to be a hero and it’s a collective movement. Never just on you.”
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