An iPub Perspective Editorial
By Ann Marie B. Bahr
After recovering a book full of photographs of normal citizens during the COVID-19 lockdowns, I reflect on moral injury and a community’s healing process in a secular nation.
As I left, boxes and boxes of new books were being unloaded in the restaurant’s entryway. It seemed an odd place to put books. Each was individually wrapped in cellophane and had hardcover binding. They looked expensive. Why drop them where they could easily be stolen?
“What are these?” I asked.
“A photographer took pictures of ordinary people during the pandemic,” someone answered. “He wanted to document what we were like at that time.”
“Pictures of local folks?”
I dove back inside and quickly cornered the restaurant owner. “How much for the books?” “Nothing,” he said. “They’re free—take one.” Amazed and curious, I did.
Back home, I unwrapped my mysterious treasure. It contained 266 pages of black and white photos. Most were taken where the subjects lived since that is where we were asked to stay during the pandemic. Many are family pictures, but not all family members are human in Vermont. There are photos of people holding a small dog or cat, a pet duck, or a baby goat. A cow claims center stage among the members of a multigenerational family. A small dog enjoys a ride in a kayak with his owner. A farmer in patched corduroys puts a loving arm around each of two gigantic sows, one on either side of him. On the opposite page, a man holds a piglet, its snout and feet pointing toward the camera. Shopkeepers stand outside their closed establishments, anticipating the day they can greet customers they haven’t seen in a year. There are a few diners with “Open” signs. The waitresses wear shorts and T-shirts, and the owners are casually clad. That would be true even if there were no pandemic. Vermont is notorious for its snubbing of formal dress codes. According to an article in PayScale, “Zero percent of workers in the Green Mountain State reported wearing formal business clothing to their job.”
Even though businesses are closed, people are working. A man uses a shovel to unload fill from the back of his pickup. Each of the two young men holds a chainsaw; they stand in front of a truck loaded with sawed logs ready to be split and stacked as firewood for the winter. Dairy farmers’ hay and milk. Farmstands advertise maple syrup, goat milk, eggs, various vegetables, teas, and baked goods.
At the hospital, a nurse in uniform flashes a sassy smile from behind her mask. She exudes confidence, perhaps because she works in a county with one of the nation’s lowest Covid cases.
Two boys, maybe four or five years old, run along a lakeshore holding hands. On the opposite page, two middle-aged men ride their tractors side by side, also holding hands as they careen down a wooded path together.
Everyone is smiling. Despite the pandemic, the people in these photographs appear relaxed and happy. And why not? Rural areas give one a sense of identity and security. People know you, you know them, and everybody pulls together in times of trouble (even if some won’t talk to each other otherwise). This gives people a sense that their world is secure and stable, no matter what happens. It’s a bit of a myth, just as the belief that economic opportunities abound in the big city is a myth. But these are myths upon which we build our lives. Hence our sense of absolute betrayal when they fail.
This one failed big time. One day, as a friend and I discussed the book, I realized who the photographer was. Less than a year ago, he had murdered his wife and then turned the gun on himself. Both husband and wife served the community professionally and as elected officials. The photographer who captured the major events in people’s lives also served on his town’s development review board. His wife was an educator and social worker who served as a peace justice. The murder-suicide cuts deeply into our collective sense of identity. There is a feeling of shame that such a thing could have happened here. We pride ourselves on caring for each other and therefore feel guilty that we didn’t see this coming and do something to prevent it. The trust that enabled us to meet every challenge as long as we stood together now seems hopelessly misplaced. This new sense of our reality contrasts sharply with the images in the book.
In the past few decades, “moral injury” has gained recognition as a form of trauma distinct from PTSD and other mental health disorders. Moral injury occurs when one’s worldview is shattered by a transgression against deeply held moral beliefs, values, and expectations. Of the few treatments currently available for this relatively new diagnosis, most draw upon religious traditions. This is not surprising, for religion’s role is to reconnect us to the source of all life and each other when wrongdoing tears us apart.
If truth be told, many of our religious institutions ignore their raison d’être and cause more trauma than they heal. Still, it is hard to imagine a secular substitute for the traditional role of religions in healing whole communities. Indigenous peoples often have healing rituals for a village, for an entire people, or even for the world as a whole. Jews have access to a long history of renewals of collective life after a traumatic disruption. In times of national danger or division, U.S. Presidents have called upon all the religions in the nation to participate in days of “humiliation, prayer, and fasting” (Examples include John Adams in 1798 and Abraham Lincoln in 1861).
Despite religion’s potential for healing moral injury, three things make a direct application in contemporary American society difficult, if not impossible. First, religious traditions can deal with collective trauma, collective guilt, and collective healing. On the other hand, we are intensely individualistic in our approach to trauma, guilt, and health. Second, we are a secular society. Not only do we not have a shared religion, but many of us also do not have any religion at all. Even if an Abenaki medicine keeper, a rabbi, a minister, or a priest had offered to do a healing ceremony in the aftermath of the murder-suicide, how effective could that be when most people have no understanding of what is happening? Third, some religious concepts are likely to surface in any discussion of moral injury (e.g., the reality of sin and the need for repentance) are repulsive to many people because they have been used abusively. Even if one is willing to grant those abusers are misusing these traditional religious concepts, how do we ensure they are not misused again?
In the meantime, in the absence of institutional religious leadership, we grope our way toward healing. The book can be our beacon; it shows what we will look like when we are whole again. And for that, we have to thank one very talented photographer who, sadly, is no longer with us.