On Gut Feelings and Moral Insult
Think about the last time your gut told you not to do something. Was it right or wrong?
“...in order to trust my instincts I must first respect them.”
― Scarlett Johansson
It’s not often that you’ll find me quoting an actor (especially one with a problematic history). I often don’t know many actors by name. I’m the same with songs. I can hum the melody and pick out some words, but I can’t tell you who sang it. That’s all besides the point except to illustrate that I’m speaking from a seat of privilege about a concept that’s everything but. I’m aiming to make an association that’s 100% disproportionate (but that I hope is not inappropriate). And I’ll be clear in my intent: I’m drawing this parallel to query how I tap into my own gut feelings, invite you to tap into yours, and use that sense of injustice within to consider the impact that others must face too.
I can see you because I see me.
When I stumbled upon the Johansson quote I was thinking about the concept of “moral injury.”
It’s a term often used to describe the experiences of soldiers, veterans and others with PTSD. In his book “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs & the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America,” Eyal Press takes this concept a step further, documenting the traumas of laborers whose work is hidden from many of us. This includes prison guards and those who work on the kill floors of slaughterhouses. But it’s not just that we don’t see it, Press contends. We also don’t want to think about it. Acknowledging the moral injury is, in itself, unbearable.
“Moral injury is a wound to the soul, to the character of someone who witnesses or does something that goes against their core value.” ― Press
I cannot compare the realities of our veterans or the chronic hindrances of workers who are forced to accept conditions that leave them carrying burdens far more costly than their meager wages. But I’m left wondering about the moral insults that we each carry. Not an injury of the magnitudes that Press identified, but an insult. Tiny insults that accumulate when we disregard our gut instincts.
“Follow reason but don’t ignore that gut feeling. We create reasons with our limited knowledge and experience, but gut feelings often come from universal knowledge.”
― Dr. Debasish Mridha
This concept of moral injury (or insult) got me thinking about the self-imposed offenses we can inflict upon ourselves day after day, year after year, when we neglect our gut feelings. And I’m not inviting blame. I’m welcoming reflection. (And then again, maybe you never do this, you’re always tuned in, always listening, and it’s just me. If so, please forgive my assumptions).
We now recognize that the digestive dysfunction that shows up not just in obvious ways (hello GERD, bellyache, or bowel issues), has all sorts of manifestations – from our immunity to our hormone balance to our mental health to those toxicities that we may mistakenly think of as “the root” of our health problems, to inspiration, cognition, and more. I’m not saying it’s ONLY about the gut, but the gut and its feelings, felt or not, must be tended to. (Especially if we’re talking about nutrition. The gut is where food first enters your blood and cells, afterall.)
In addition to documenting the first bout of diarrhea or the story of the initial menstrual cycle or the place of suspected mold exposure, I want to ask, “when was the first time you ignored a gut feeling?” Or perhaps, “when was the last time you ignored a gut feeling?” Or maybe even, “do you find that you still have gut feelings?” (Use if or lose it, they say).
But my question right now is: in a neurocentric culture, where we tend to look for the information that will satisfy our hungry, demanding brains (that absolutely think they know it all), where can we rekindle our relationship with our gut feelings? What information can we derive from sensation rather than cognition?
Note to self: Take a moment today to tune into gut feelings. Hone the muscle. And the communication between the two brains. When something feels “off,” pause. Ask why. Respond from that place of understanding and compassion.
For more on our neurocentric culture and the exploration of the concept of interoception, tune-in to episode #303 of the 15-Minute Matrix podcast, where author Annie Murphy Paul Maps Interoception.