That Powerlessness You Feel Is Called ‘Moral Distress’

How to cultivate moral resilience instead

Michele DeMarco, PhD
Elemental
Published in
11 min readFeb 10, 2021

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Image: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is a centuries-old proverb inspired by a Japanese carving that depicts three monkeys, each with a hand covering eyes, ears, and mouth, respectively. In the West, the phrase has come to be associated with turning a blind eye to something that is legally or morally wrong, but the original meaning was that a person should always avoid evil, including in deed.

But what do we do when we find ourselves in a situation where “evil” is unavoidable? When we can’t stop seeing or hearing it, or else are powerless to prevent it? What do we do when speaking up or acting against evil is inadvisable because doing so poses a direct threat to ourselves or to something or someone we love? What happens when life forces us to choose between two “wrongs,” or bad situations, either one compromising our core values, obligations, and commitments? How do these so-called “choices” live inside us? Better yet, how does “wrong” live inside us, whether it’s our own or something others have done?

The concept of “moral distress”

Moral distress” is a term coined in 1984 by philosopher Andrew Jameton to describe the suffering nurses experience when institutional or systemic…

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Michele DeMarco, PhD
Elemental

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com