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Spiritual Wounding and Affliction: Facilitating Spiritual Transformation in Social Justice Work


Edward Kruk, M.S.W., Ph.D.,
Associate Professor,
The University of British Columbia,
School of Social Work and Family Studies,
2080 West Mall,
Vancouver, British Columbia
V6T 1Z2



This paper explores the writings of metaphysical philosopher and social activist Simone Weil on spiritual wounding and affliction, as well as implications for the development of a spiritually-grounded and -sensitive social work practice. The nature of spiritual affliction is considered, challenges to discerning spiritual trauma discussed, and barriers to receiving help for those in the midst of such wounding revealed. A framework for social work practice based on a spiritual foundation is articulated, which embraces social justice as focused on human needs and social obligations, toward the goal of spiritual transformation in cases of spiritual wounding. The perspective of those experiencing spiritual affliction in the area of hard drug addiction is discussed as a case study.


Spiritual Wounding and Affliction:
Facilitating Spiritual Transformation in Social Justice Work



Spiritual wounding is, essentially, the violation of the sacred or spiritual core in human beings, harm experienced at the deepest level of one’s being. This assumes, first, that a “spiritual core” exists in human beings, and this core can be damaged by external conditions; and second, that such damage amounts to a spiritual wounding that leads to a “spiritual affliction.” When one’s life is damaged or destroyed by some wound or privation, due to others’ actions or negligence, deep wounding may occur that, in a sense, goes beyond physical harm, psychological torment and social exclusion, but is contained in all of these. The state of spiritual affliction transcends all other forms of suffering, and induces an inertia such that those experiencing the condition are typically viewed as responsible for their situation, and the social conditions that lead to spiritual harm are largely ignored.

The French philosopher, mystic and social activist Simone Weil (1909-1943) focused on spiritual wounding and affliction, and the link between compassion and affliction, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century writer. What constitutes the sacred core in human beings is first discussed by Weil in her essay, “Human Personality” (Weil, 1943a). As the bulk of Simone Weil’s work was published posthumously, in most instances several years after her death, the year of completion of each manuscript is cited. In the bibliography both year of writing and date of publication are cited. Is there a spiritual core that is shared by all human beings, she asks, from early infancy, even from the point of conception, until the tomb? Starting with Weil’s (1942a: 119) definition of creation as, “good broken up into pieces and scattered throughout evil,” or amidst “blind mechanical necessity,” one may come to discern a spiritual core shared by human beings. The core of good in all of us, according to Weil, is evident in the child-like yet profound expectation that good and not harm will come to us, which exists despite the harm we have suffered, caused, and passively witnessed. When this expectation or belief is violated then we have suffered an injury to our spirit; at the extreme end of spiritual wounding, this striving for good, however defined by the individual, may come to be replaced by what novelist Philip Roth (2000) calls “the wisdom of someone who has no expectations.” In those who are deeply spiritually wounded, an inertia may set in and faith in others, hope for a better future, and even capacity to give to others—to love—may become diminished, a natural result of external oppressive circumstances over which people have little control. From a social welfare perspective, this constitutes a waste of needed social capital, as individuals capable of overcoming the inertia induced by spiritual wounding are uniquely suited to help others steeped in spiritual affliction which to the non-afflicted, according to Weil, is as difficult to understand as “describing as the idea of sight to a blind individual.” An understanding of spiritual wounding, as Weil came to demonstrate in her book, The Need for Roots, is essential to the task of addressing the fundamental needs of the spiritually afflicted. This task is central to the obligation of “love of neighbour,” which Weil and others have argued is particularly difficult in our society. It is as if in our rights-based moral culture we continually deny the suffering of others because we know that we have a diminished moral capacity to enable us to face its worst forms.

As Nye (1994) writes, Simone Weil, the key link between social philosophers Rosa Luxembourg and Hannah Arendt, represents a new tradition of philosophy focused on producing an understanding of divinity, self, and value, in the context of the reality of oppression—knowledge viable in the new century. Weil began her study of spiritual wounding with an exploration of the nature of oppression and evil, which she studied within the pre-World War II French industrial (factory) system. She concluded that evil as banality was less conceptually interesting than the experience of “malheur,” or “spiritual affliction.” Her essay, “The Love of God and Affliction” (Weil, 1942b) stands as one of the past century’s more poignant treatises on reason and emotion, freedom and slavery, and the particular effects of spiritual wounding. That Weil was able to develop her early ideas on spiritual affliction toward a well-formulated “Statement of Social Obligations Corresponding to Human Needs,” contained in The Need for Roots (Weil, 1943b), is her major achievement. An understanding of spiritual affliction, however, is instructive in allowing the reader access to the experience of spiritual wounding, pain at the level of the spirit.

In our rights-dominated academic discourse and legal and government systems, we hear disparate voices of victims of injustice asserting their rights and entitlements; however, the largely invisible, silent and mute cries of those who have come to believe that they have no rights are often drowned out. Those whose rights have been ignored, whose rights are simply not recognized, call for solutions that go beyond the granting of rights; according to Weil, first and foremost, “their cry must be heard.” In particular, their perspective on their own needs must be ascertained. That spiritual wounding is often the precursor of many social ills--addiction, mental health problems, and child abuse and neglect—must be acknowledged, and a spiritual component to addressing the root causes of spiritual trauma is needed. To the degree that social work is practiced in the shadow of retributive criminal justice policies, objectifying mental health diagnostic criteria, and treatment models that are concerned only with surface symptoms, however, the spiritual dimension of oppression is rarely addressed. These policies serve to marginalize those who experience spiritual trauma. This paper proposes an alternative spiritually-grounded approach to social justice work and education focused on enumerating physical and metaphysical human needs and social responsibilities in this regard. Social work practice in the field of addiction will be examined to exemplify Weil’s formulations.

Discerning Spiritual Wounding and Affliction

It is difficult to even begin to estimate the prevalence of spiritual affliction in today’s world. Most people spend their lives trying to avoid such a condition. It is difficult to understand the experience of suffering spiritual wounding, as no two responses to external trauma are the same. Weil tries to capture the essence of the condition as characterized by at least some degree of three core elements: physical trauma, psychological and emotional torment, and social marginalization. On a community level, citizens and neighbours have largely disengaged from the spiritually afflicted, transferring caregiving obligations to the hands of professional service providers. John McKnight (1995) suggests that this has blunted community capacity to care for others as friends and fellow community members, especially the most vulnerable.

Simone Weil (1942b: 441) wrote bluntly: “Compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility, a miracle akin to walking on water, healing the sick or raising the dead.” What, then, are the core characteristics of the spiritually afflicted that lead to such a lack of individual and collective human response? Is it ever possible for human beings to have compassion for those experiencing spiritual wounding and affliction? What are the main challenges facing those working with the spiritually traumatized in a spiritually-grounded and spiritually-sensitive manner?


Spiritual affliction is an extreme form of suffering which, according to Weil (1942b: 439) also transcends suffering: it is “something apart, unique and irreducible;” an “uprooting of life, a kind of a death, which is anonymous, indifferent, and blind. Its power is largely the result of the element of chance which it contains.” “In affliction, the vital instinct survives uprooted attachments and blindly clings to anything that might serve as a support, in the way a plant’s tendrils cling” (ibid.). Although personal factors come into play, as the same event may plunge one human being into a state of spiritual affliction and not another, Affliction is sometimes the result of arresting the harm done to us within ourselves. Our alternatives at such critical points in our lives are often limited. When we are hurt to the point of suffering a blow in the depths of our souls, we are given a choice, however momentary, between either affliction or retribution. It is possible for us to suffer less by transferring the hurt back onto the person who has hurt us, or onto another and away from oneself. However, retribution usually results in a multiplication of harms, whereas suffering arrests the harm in oneself, reducing it for others. At certain brief moments in our lives, writes Weil, we are faced with a fundamental choice--either transform suffering into violence, or violence into suffering. spiritual wounding is random, and arbitrary, the result of chance and circumstances. First and foremost, however, one feels oneself to be uprooted, and all attachments are replaced by the simple need to survive.


A sense of slavery is central to the definition. Spiritual affliction “seizes the human soul and possesses it, marking it with a particular mark: the mark of slavery;” and, quoting the ancient Greeks: “A man loses half his soul the day he becomes a slave.” Affliction marks one, she writes, “like the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans used to place upon the forehead of their most despised slaves” (Weil, 1942b: 440). This sense of slavery might today be labeled as a serious mental illness, or a personality disorder. According to Weil, however, such formulations are mistaken, as spiritual affliction has little to do with the personality. It has everything to do with the soul; above all else, it is a “mutilation of the soul by the blind, mechanical brutality of circumstances” (Weil, 1942b: 440).

Spiritual affliction “chains down” thoughts and feelings. It is “at the root of every thought and feeling, without exception” (Weil, 1942b: 441); it filters into every aspect of one’s life, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual; the soul becomes inextricably steeped in pain. Those who have never had contact with spiritual affliction in its true sense can have no idea what it is, even though they may have known much suffering. It pierces through to the very centre of one’s soul, and thus involves an immensity of force, blind, brutal, and cold. Weil describes those who plunge others into affliction as “killers of souls.”

In spiritual affliction “the soul is constrained to repeat...a sustained, monotonous groan, ‘Why? Why am I being hurt?’ To which there is no answer given” (Weil, 1942b: 450). There is no apparent meaning to the suffering in such affliction. Spiritual wounding is anonymous and indifferent, and “it is the chill of this indifference--a metallic chill--which freezes those it touches, down to the depths of their soul” (ibid.) It is particularly devastating to “those who have known joy in their lives, and who have tasted the flavour of the world’s beauty, for joy and beauty are the same thing. At the same time, this is the person least deserving of the punishment” of such trauma (Weil, 1942: 445).

Contempt for spiritual affliction

Others’ reaction to those struggling with spiritual affliction is its second core element: it causes one to be socially excluded, feared and marginalized--the sort of reaction that one would expect toward wrongdoing is in fact attached to spiritual affliction. Spiritually afflicted people tend to be seen as “specimen(s) of a certain type” and assigned a variety of labels, and that is where social responsibility ends for many of those so injured. According to Weil, it goes against human nature to love someone who is spiritually afflicted. True compassion for the spiritually afflicted would have to entail a “voluntary, consented equivalent of affliction” (Weil, 1942b: 444)--that is, identifying oneself with the afflicted person to the point of taking on part of the affliction. True compassion is “suffering with” and working in solidarity with another, as an ally.

Self-contempt of the spiritually afflicted

Over time, according to Weil, the contempt and revulsion of others toward spiritually afflicted persons is turned inward, as they come to believe that their treatment is deserved. Due to such internalized oppression, “it is very difficult to for an afflicted person to help others,” as “affliction discourages and hardens a person. It stamps the soul with contempt, disgust, and even the sense of guilt and defilement that evil logically should produce but actually does not. Evil is not felt in the heart of the criminal; it is felt in the heart of the person who is afflicted and innocent...The state of soul appropriate to those who harm others is separated from their violence and attached to affliction--seemingly in proportion to the innocence of those who are afflicted” (Weil, 1942a: 119).

Spiritual affliction is largely mute. “There is a natural alliance between truth and affliction,” because both are “mute supplicants” (Weil, 1942b: 443). The spiritually traumatized “sink into impotence in the use of language, because of the certainty of not being heard.” And there comes a point in spiritual affliction when one cannot bear either the thought that it should go on or that one should be delivered from it. “To be delivered from a long drawn-out affliction would make all that one has gone through seem almost useless” (Weil, 1942b: 460). Inertia is thus another characteristic of spiritual trauma; the afflicted are largely unable to make efforts to improve their lot and appear almost content with their lot. Others view such an attitude as something ridiculous.

Weil focuses further on this particular form of spiritual crisis: spiritual trauma “causes all good to be absent for a time, during which a kind of horror submerges the soul, characterized by an absence of light. During this absence there is nothing to love. If in the darkness the soul ceases to love, the darkness becomes permanent” (Weil, 1942b: 456). “The soul has to go on loving in the void, or at least go on wanting to love, though it may be only with an infinitesimal part of itself” (ibid.)--that is, remaining oriented toward the good, toward love, through the suffering. The most one can usually do when in a state of spiritual affliction is to refrain from ceasing to wish to love. “Then, one day, light and the beauty of the world may reappear...But if the soul stops loving it falls into a kind of hell” (ibid.).

One important lesson learned from spiritual affliction is that “we can no longer believe that the world is created or controlled by ourselves. Affliction reveals, suddenly and to our great surprise, that we were totally mistaken in this regard” (Weil, 1942b: 440). When this is accepted, we encounter the reality of the world’s “necessity,” or force. Spiritual trauma exposes our vulnerability and fragility. According to Weil, without spiritual affliction it is impossible to know that everything in the soul, “all its thoughts and feelings, its every attitude towards ideas, people, and the universe, and above all, the most intimate attitude of the being toward itself, is entirely at the mercy of circumstances. In this sense affliction contains the truth about the human condition” (Weil, 1942b: 450). She expresses this truth in stark terms, “I may lose at any moment, through the play of circumstances over which I have no control, that which is dearest to me, so precious that I consider it as being myself. There is nothing that I might not lose. It could happen at any moment that what I am and whatever goodness there may be attached to my life might be abolished and replaced by anything of the most vile and contemptible sort. The nightmare cruelty of life is not in the remote and fantastic, but in the probable--the horror of love, loss, cannot contemplate it without terror, the extent of the harm which man can do, and endure” (Weil, 1942a: 456).

It is only when suffering comes to be seen as “something divine, in and of itself, not because of compensations, consolations, or recompenses,” that we are touching something at the core of the good. In this context Weil says that “for those in affliction, evil can be defined as being everything that gives any consolation” (Weil, ibid.). She also believes that “no matter what degree of affliction one is submerged in, one has deserved at least that much. Because it is certain that before becoming afflicted, one has been an accomplice, a collaborator, in plunging others into affliction, through cowardice, inertia, indifference or culpable ignorance. Among our institutions and customs there are things so atrocious that nobody can legitimately feel himself innocent of this diffused complicity. It is certain that each of us is involved at least in the guilt of criminal indifference” (Weil, 1941a).

Compassion for Victims of Spiritual Wounding

Is compassion for the spiritually afflicted indeed impossible? Simone Weil asserts that “knowledge of another’s affliction is by nature impossible both to those who have experienced it and those who have not” (Weil, 1942b: 455). Even were such knowledge to be obtained, compassion, as “suffering with,” entails voluntarily consenting to assume part of that affliction, and that, she argues, goes against our nature as human beings.

But then she explores the question more deeply. Compassion for the afflicted is possible when compassion rests upon a deep knowledge of spiritual trauma, which entails a process of coming to see the face of spiritual affliction, getting to know the person behind the affliction, and acting accordingly. When this happens it is always a miracle, “akin to walking on water, healing the sick or raising the dead” (Weil, 1942b: 455).

Attention: Love as an Orientation

For Simone Weil (1952a), “compassion consists in paying attention to an afflicted man and identifying oneself with him in thought” (Weil, 1942b: 466). Attention is the key that opens the door to compassion for those suffering spiritual trauma: "Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention” (Weil, 1941b: 51). Paying true attention is not as easy as it may sound. Feigning attention is much more common; it is done in the course of our daily lives, pretending to care, as true compassion involves expending energy. The quality of being attentive is in decline. Most have good intentions, but "good intentions are among those that pave the way to hell” (ibid.).

Simone Weil proposes that we be more attentive, particularly to those experiencing spiritual trauma. Not false attention, but truly "suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object [of attention]" (Weil, 1941b). There must be a real desire to concentrate, without becoming distracted. We must project our own being into the affliction of the other, sharing the trauma, becoming, in a sense, personally afflicted. She wrote, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough” (ibid.). “Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius” (Weil, 1942b). “God is attention without distraction” (Weil, 1943c).

Bell (1999) argues that Weil’s concept of attention has to do with “reading injustice,” or discernment of what someone is saying, the kind of protest a person makes who is being harmed, and the social conditions which create the climate for oppression and spiritual wounding. To see spiritual affliction and not avoid it, to direct our compassion toward the trauma, requires a deep knowledge of affliction, the ability to read spiritual wounding: to assess and to intervene in a planned manner. It then involves “giving to those who have been stripped of their humanity an existence apart from their affliction” (Weil, 1942b) This requires considerable sensitivity, courage and sacrifice--a detachment from self and complete focus on the other person, and overcoming myths and fears in regard to spiritual affliction.

The implications of such an orientation for social justice work are profound. True “attention” means being genuine, spontaneous, and not in a role, not putting on a “professional mask.” The inadequacy of notions such as “professional boundaries,” “compassion fatigue,” and “co-dependency” becomes apparent, as effective practice requires genuine interest, respect, risk-taking, and understanding the depth of spiritual trauma experienced, at a person’s own pace. It demands listening and understanding spiritually afflicted individuals from their own perspective.

At the same time that attention is required of those who are working with a spiritually afflicted person, those in affliction must be predisposed to receiving it. For those in affliction, “constrained to repeat like a sustained, monotonous groan, ‘Why am I being hurt?’” (Weil, 1942b: 441), there appears to be no way out. Trust does not come easily. Those who appear compassionate are regarded with skepticism, as having a personal agenda, exploiting others’ misery, or seeking to control or exert their power over the vulnerable.

An orientation of patient waiting--another kind of attention--is necessary on the part of the spiritually afflicted person: "We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them” (Weil, 1942b: 450). Throughout the pain of spiritual trauma, one can only go on wanting to love, and waiting. “No pain, however great, can touch that part of the soul which consents to the direction of the good…It is only necessary to know that love is an orientation and not a state of the soul. Anyone who does not know this will fall into despair at the first onset of affliction” (Weil, ibid.).

Weil refers to the myth of Prometheus, the Book of Job, and the story of Christ’s Passion as examples of continuing to love in the depths of spiritual affliction, keeping focused on the good while forsaken and humiliated. In affliction, the challenge is not merely to love, but to love beyond all reason. Twentieth-century accounts of Holocaust survivors reflect a similar orientation, as exemplified in the writings of Elie Wiesel (1986).

According to Weil, “a blind mechanism continually tosses us as human beings about and throws some of us into the deepest recesses of affliction. It rests with us to keep or not to keep our eyes turned toward love through all the jolting” (Weil, 1942b: 456). Those who find themselves in a state of spiritual trauma must be oriented in a positive direction, even in the apparent absence of good in their lives, in order to be able to receive and make use of it when it comes to them.

Weil (1942b: 450) defines love as an orientation, not a state, of the soul. The fundamental choice of human beings is to orient ourselves toward or away from “the good,” to turn our eyes toward one or another direction. The natural human reaction of those in the throes of spiritual affliction is profound discouragement and a tendency to believe that one is unlovable, and a turning away from the direction of good. For those not in affliction, the natural tendency is to recoil, avert one’s eyes, or even respond with contempt to the sight of spiritual affliction. The true test of love, it is said, is to “love the unlovable.” The opposite of contempt is attention and compassion, which in the case of spiritual trauma demands a great deal, and in a sense goes against human nature, as a result of the self-contempt of those in affliction (and their inability to give love), their many needs that cry out to be met, and the fact that love of the afflicted entails sharing in their suffering, deep pain and wounding.

Social Justice Work: Love as Action

Simone Weil also talks about love as action in her meditations on justice which, following the classical Greek origins of the word, she defines as “seeing that no harm is done to another” (Weil, 1943a).

According to Weil, the word “justice” has lost its meaning in modern times, replaced by a vacuous notion of “rights,” with devastatingly harmful results, including the blunting of our pursuit of justice. She writes, “to place rights at the centre of social conflicts inhibits any possible impulse of compassion on both sides” (Weil, 1943a: 59). Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention, which must rely on force in the background, and to buy into rights language is to believe that power can be counter-balanced by power. To say “if we could just achieve equal rights...” means either snatching rights from someone else, or imposing an ideology. The spiritually afflicted have already been subject to the ravages of power; the call to regain power over others as a redress is an attempt to transform suffering into retribution, and harms are likely to multiply.

A rights-based orientation imposes a moral mediocrity. As the language of those privileged not to experience spiritual trauma, the discourse of “rights” is based on a sense of entitlement. “Rights” refer to individual entitlements, and focus on the question, “Why don’t I have as much as he has?;” as opposed to, “Why am I being hurt?” Calculating what one can obtain as compensation for harms that have been done is the essence of a rights-based approach. According to Weil, “Thanks to rights, what should have been a cry of protest from the depths of the heart turns into a shrill nagging of claims and counter-claims” (Weil, 1943a: 51). It becomes impossible to keep focused on the real problem: that fact that an injustice has occurred, a harm committed, which cannot be understood as a right that has been taken. Weil uses the example of a young girl being forced into prostitution: it is not just a violation of rights that she has experienced--she has suffered an injustice, a type of harm done to her which cannot be adequately understood as a “right” taken. What has been taken and what can be returned in place of the sexual violation? “The real problem cannot be solved by compensation; her cry must be heard” (Weil, 1943a: 60).

The more concerned one is with human rights, the less one is able to focus on human needs and social responsibilities. Indeed, the notions of rights and responsibilities express entirely different points of view; the actual relationship between the two is as between object and subject. In this context, Weil writes, “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation toward him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much” (Weil, 1943c: 3).

In contrast to the notion of rights is Weil’s view of justice as meeting obligations, “seeing that no harm is done to another,” evocative of the focus of the emerging “harm reduction” and “restorative justice” movements. Compassion for the afflicted is realized by means of actions based upon meeting basic human needs—physical, psychological, social, and spiritual—by means of “obligations” or responsibilities. She writes, “For every need there is a corresponding obligation; for every obligation a corresponding need” (Weil, 1943b: 202). Although human rights are seen to have a place in social conflicts, rights are preceded by responsibilities. Through attention we are able to read the nature of the harm being done; love as an orientation makes this possible. We enter the realm of love as action when we act according to what we read, which involves meeting core human needs and reducing harm in particular instances. We are called to take action: “Compassion,” she says, “consists (not only) in paying attention to an afflicted man and identifying oneself with him in thought. It then follows that one feeds him automatically if he is hungry, just as one feeds oneself. Bread given in this way is the effect and sign of compassion” (Weil, 1943b:201).

Human needs are the nutriments or conditions essential to a human being’s growth and integrity. As such, the needs of human beings are sacred. Weil (1942c) provides a starting point for the enumeration of essential human needs, which are not organized hierarchically but as pairs of opposites that complement each other. Balance is the key to addressing needs. The needs of the body are fairly easy to identify: food, warmth, sleep, health, rest, exercise, fresh air. The “needs of the soul,” on the other hand, are a little more ambiguous. Order is the first spiritual need; a stable social environment provides a sense of constancy, predictability, routine and continuity essential to spiritual well-being. The remaining needs are presented as pairs of opposites: equality and hierarchy; autonomy and consented obedience; truth and freedom of expression; honor and consequences; security and risk; privacy and social life; private property and collective property. Finally, the “need for roots,” a sense of belonging within various “natural environments” such as family and community, is considered by Weil (1943) to be the most neglected human need, a tragic circumstance of modern consumer society in which individuals are disconnected from the milieux in which humans have naturally participated, and through which we live as moral, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

A responsibility to needs approach to social justice work requires consideration and forethought. To move into this realm is to adopt an ethic of care, a compassion-based morality, within which we assume an unconditional obligation not to let another “suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance” (Weil, 1941b). The process of recognition of spiritual wounding involves deep attention when the other speaks. “Whenever the cry arises from the depths of another’s soul, ‘Why am I being hurt?,’” harm is being done at the level of the spirit--that which is most “sacred” in a human being: the expectation that good and not harm will be done to us, the longing for good (Weil, 1943a). Through attention, we begin to recognize instances in which the “sacred” has been violated in another, where spiritual trauma has occurred. Thus any action we take is at that spiritual level, and involves preserving or restoring this spiritual core in others.

It is also important to name injustice and oppression where it occurs. As the circumstances that give rise to injustice are “read,” the “reader” feels a little of injustice’s imperative force. In social work in the context of spiritual affliction, the practitioner neither respects nor practices power and control over others. Fear, pain, cruelty, humiliation, and shaming make up the “reading” of the circumstances that give rise to injustice, and evoke a concern for justice. Elizabeth Wolgast (1987) writes that to call something “unjust” is to take it out of the realm of disinterested reportage; saying that something is wrong or an injustice marks it for moral concern and action.

It is critical that the planning process of assessing alternatives for intervention to address spiritual wounding, social injustice and unmet needs, determining goals, be done from the perspective of the spiritually afflicted individual. Self-determination and self-efficacy are core elements of social justice work; that is, the belief that the spiritually afflicted person has the capacity, strength and will to reach his or her goals, rather than having to adapt to the expectations of the service provider.

Spiritual transformation: Case study

A field of social justice work in which a responsibility-to-needs approach to spiritual affliction is essential is work with socially marginalized individuals struggling with addiction, poverty, and mental illness. In this field of practice, the neglect and violation of basic human needs is extreme, and spiritual affliction may be seen as a precursor to the addiction. A spiritually-based approach to practice is thus critical as spiritual wounding lies underneath the visible trauma. In the field of addiction, the potential for spiritual transformation exists when a responsibility-for-needs approach to social justice work is used.

As Gabor Mate writes, “all addictions are anesthetics. They separate us from the distress in our consciousness” (Mate, 1999: 297). Simone Weil would go further, adding that all addictions are attempts to cope with and separate us from spiritual affliction. Addiction is above all a failed attempt to meet basic human needs, and above all else, those struggling with addiction need someone to attend to their basic needs, as they define them. In addition to basic physical needs such as housing and adequate nutrition, the lack of social connectedness and the experience of displacement, from family to spiritual community, have been identified as key causal factors in the development of an addiction (Alexander, 2001).

The influence of Simone Weil’s philosophy is evident in the work of social activists and social justice workers in Vancouver, Canada. The restoration of human dignity, the need for honour and respect, equality and autonomy, and restoration of vital human connections lies at the heart of recent initiatives to deal with the widespread phenomenon of hard drug addiction among residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the neighborhood with the lowest per capita income in the country. The efforts of a coalition of drug users and service providers, under the banner of the “Harm Reduction Action Society,” focused on the stated needs of intravenous drug users at risk of death and disease, the result of failed North American “war on drugs” policies aimed at reducing drug supply and curbing demand for illicit drugs. Homeless intravenous drug users, with limited employment options and multiple unmet needs, involved in criminal activity and sex trade work to support their drug habit, and locked in an adversarial relationship with both social workers and police, were meaningfully engaged in a harm reduction effort that began with the recognition of the prevalence of spiritual trauma within this population. Members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, an organization founded by community activists and funded by the regional health board, were asked to identify their needs and priorities as part of Vancouver’s “four-pillar” campaign of harm reduction, treatment, prevention, and enforcement to deal with the area’s “epidemic” social problems. A safe injection facility was identified by the I.V. drug using community as the first priority in addressing its basic needs, which after three years and concerted efforts by a coalition of community residents, service providers, politicians, and educators, including obtaining an exemption by the federal government agency, Health Canada, to allow for its legal status, was in operation. Two years after its opening, studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of the site as a “harm reduction” measure. The Vancouver safe injection facility has reduced death and disease associated with street-based consumption of hard drugs in the Downtown Eastside—and has also proven to be a more effective method of helping IV drug users to move toward drug abstinence and recovery than traditional treatment approaches (British Columbia Centre for Excellence, 2006) Identifying and naming the harms directly caused by dominant “drug war” policies and legal practices was an important aspect of the social justice efforts of the Harm Reduction Action Society’s campaign (Pivot Legal Society, 2004).

Another project, based on Weil’s (1943c) formulations respecting human needs and corresponding social policies, examined the addiction treatment needs of low income women residents of the Downtown Eastside (Sandberg, 2006; Kruk & Sandberg, 2005). Research examining women’s perspectives on the core elements of an effective addiction treatment program started from the assumption that in order to adequately respond to the needs of individuals with substance addictions, their experience and perspective in regard to the components and processes that are self-identified as intrinsic to addiction and health need to be recognized and acknowledged. As spiritual affliction is a precursor of addiction, the views of the women on their needs and priorities stand in sharp contrast to what many addiction treatment and support recovery programs are currently attempting to provide. Traditional programs have had limited success with this population, providing only abstinence-based interventions, and largely ignored the multiple needs of women who are, above all else, victims of profound spiritual trauma.

The importance of meaningful human attachments, to be rooted in a family, supportive social network and community, was identified by the women themselves as fundamental to their affliction/addiction “recovery,” echoing Weil’s belief that, “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”; and “of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one” (Weil, 1943b). From this and other studies (Jones & Kruk, 2005), it was found that it is important not to relieve parents struggling with their addiction of their primary responsibility for their children; this is best shared between parents and between parents and their support networks. Following Weil’s (1943b) “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations,” the three core needs identified by the women themselves as most “sacred” to them were: the need for roots (“a feeling of belonging,” “a sense of family,” “a ‘home’ base”), the need for order (“clear rules,” “a sense of normalcy”), and the need for security (“safety,” “stability”) (Sandberg, 2006).


“In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the grail belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, “What are you going through?”” (Weil, 1943c). Starting with this question, social justice workers have the potential to facilitate spiritual transformation in those afflicted by spiritual trauma, by means of attention, and a responsibility-to-needs approach to social justice. As Weil wrote, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough” (Weil, 1941b); “love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius” (Weil, 1942b); and finally, “God is attention without distraction” (Weil, 1943c).

Attention has to do with discernment of what is spoken, the specific kind of protest made by a spiritually wounded individual, and the social conditions which create the climate for injustice. It involves being able to “read” spiritual affliction, to assess it accurately and to intervene in a planned manner. “To give to those who have been stripped of their humanity an existence of their own, an existence apart from their affliction” (Weil, 1942b: 460), is critical--because as spiritual affliction becomes the focus of one’s existence, “in all other respects he loses significance, in other’s eyes as well as his own.”

For the spiritually wounded individual, the opportunity to give voice to one’s needs is in itself transformative. To have these experiences recognized and validated by another is profoundly healing, and a precursor to spiritual transformation. This is the work of healing through restoration of human dignity, and restoration of loving life-sustaining relationships. This is the spiritual foundation of social justice work, where work with those struggling with spiritual affliction is primarily concerned with restoring the “sacred core” in all human beings: the expectation that good and not harm will come to us (Weil, 1943a), the quest for good in one’s life.


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