TEDxUCLA 2019: Time

It hurts to hurt someone


About Maryann

Maryann Jacobi Gray is a social psychologist, writer, and university administrator. She was assistant provost at UCLA until her retirement in 2017; she has also served as associate vice provost at the University of Southern California and a behavioral scientist at RAND. She created and maintains the website accidentalimpacts.org. Maryann received her Ph.D. in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine and her BA in psychology from Duke University.


Apollo was among the most beautiful and virtuous of all the gods. He was an amazing athlete. He had the gift of prophecy. He was a poet and a musician.

One of his favorite lovers was a mortal, a handsome prince named Hyacinth. One day they were playing in the fields and Apollo’s discus veered off course and hit Hyacinth in the head. Apollo ran to him and tried to save him, but he couldn’t. And Hyacinth died in his arms.

Well if a powerful god like Apollo was unable to prevent a tragic accident, mere mortals like us have even less of a chance. It’s a sad fact of the human condition that, despite the best of intentions, sooner or later we’re likely to make a mistake and someone will be hurt physically or emotionally.

For the past 12 years, I’ve been studying what happens when we unintentionally hurt each other. As a social psychologist I’m interested in how these accidents disrupt our lives and our relationships.

Now most of the time, the damage that we cause is minor, and if we feel any guilt, that’s just a good healthy signal to fix whatever it is we messed up. But sometimes the damage we cause is severe. Sometimes it can’t be fixed.

It hurts to hurt someone. When we wound another person without meaning to, whether those wounds are emotional or physical, we feel wounded as well

Psychologists and clergy use the term “moral injury” to describe the distress that we feel when our behavior fails to live up to our moral standards. And because most of us do fall short on occasion, most of us are familiar with that churning combination of guilt and shame and self-condemnation with a big hefty dose of defensiveness thrown in.

The worst part of moral injury, though, is the loneliness. Human beings have an innate need to feel accepted and valued. And when we unintentionally hurt someone, that comfortable sense of belonging that we mostly just take for granted slips. And instead we feel cut off from other people and separate.

This lonely alienation at worst can be nearly immobilizing, and it gets in the way of making peace with the person we hurt, the wider community, and ourselves.

Forty-two years ago, I was a graduate student living in the small town of Oxford, Ohio. On a beautiful spring day, not long after the schools let out for summer, I was driving down a country road a few miles outside of town when an eight-year-old boy named Brian darted into the street. I tried to swerve but I hit him, and he died before he reached the hospital.

I spent most of that afternoon sitting alone, locked in the back of a police car while the officers investigated. After several hours of that, a woman came out of one of the neighboring houses, convinced the police to open the car door, and she handed me a glass of cold water. And then a few minutes after that, I watched as she came out of her house a second time and again approached the officers.

And this time they let me get out of the car and follow her back to her house, an old farmhouse where she sat with me at her kitchen table because she didn’t want me to have to wait alone anymore.

As you could well imagine, Brian’s death devastated his family, and it traumatized the community: his classmates, teachers, and other families in the area. And his death had a profound effect on my life.

Since that afternoon, not a day has gone by when I’ve not thought about Brian and his family. I thought about them on the day I defended my doctoral dissertation and on the day my father died. I thought about them as I drove over here this morning.

I live with the memory of that small broken body, and I live with the memory of his mother’s screams. And I’ll always wonder if there’s something I could have done differently to avoid hitting him.

Now when I began this talk, you probably thought you were going to hear a social scientist describing her research. But now you know my research is based on my own experience, and it’s deeply personal.

So take a few seconds. Check in with yourself. Ask yourself how you’re feeling and how you’re feeling about me, knowing what I’ve done. There might be sadness, compassion, maybe a bit of anxiety. There might be boredom or even resentment that I’m foisting my story on you.

Whatever your reaction, it’s likely that your attitude or feelings toward me changed as a result of hearing my story. And it’s that almost inevitable shift, even when it’s driven more by empathy than judgment, that contributes to the disconnection that people like me, people I sometimes call unintentional perpetrators, experience. Suddenly, our relationships just feel different.

Well fortunately, very few of us will accidentally kill someone. But almost all, or really virtually all of us, will unintentionally hurt someone in some way at some time, most commonly hurting their feelings. And this too could result in moral injury.

A good example comes from a personal essay by the writer, comedian, and actress Amy Poehler who described her experience when a Saturday Night Live skit appeared to mock people with disabilities. That in itself was bad enough, but a few days after the show aired, Amy discovered she had made fun of a real person, a young woman whose struggle for inclusion had inspired a TV movie at the time, and that young woman had seen the skit.

Well Amy told herself that the situation was unfortunate, but she hadn’t intended to hurt anyone’s feelings, and in her words, she pretended it went away. She wrote, “I was afraid to put my hand on my heart and hear the tiny voice whispering inside me saying that I had screwed up.”

Amy’s situation and mine are vastly different, but we both fell short of important moral standards we held for ourselves, and we both got caught up in that toxic storm of guilt and shame and disconnection, alienation, and defensiveness. And like so many other people with moral injury, we both tried to ignore what was going on inside and soldier on.

So it took Amy five years before she was able to reach out and apologize. And even though I thought about Brian all the time, I kept what happened a secret from the world for about 20 years because that’s how long it took me to understand that I couldn’t really fully share my caring and my abilities until I had also shared my story.

So whether you’re a celebrity like Amy, a god like Apollo, or a middle-aged academic, how do people who’ve unintentionally hurt someone resolve moral injury?

When I began looking into this question some years back, I came up empty. And to this day there is a remarkable lack of resources for those of us who become unintentional perpetrators. Recently this has started to change, and my own work points to three conditions for regaining a sense of belonging and connection.

The first of these is accountability. Owning the damage that we’ve done. I was not legally culpable for Brian’s death, but I was responsible and I had to acknowledge that before I could decide what to do about it.

The second condition is compassion, which we receive from others and also can give to ourselves. Compassion means recognizing that people who hurt someone unintentionally are themselves in pain, and that pain is evidence of their humanity and caring.

And the third condition is community. We’re social creatures. We need peer support. But even more important than peer support is giving back to community, making reparations, making amends, or doing our best to make the world a better place.

These three conditions of accountability, compassion, and community are quite straightforward. But putting them into practice can be quite challenging. And that’s because of the way unintentionally hurting someone disrupts our relationships, and not just with the person we hurt but with our friendship circle, family, community, because we lose a measure of trust that we’re accepted for who we are.

When we hurt somebody, we tend to withdraw or pull away from other people. We don’t want to make them uncomfortable. We might not feel deserving of support. We might feel hopeless about the prospects of finding support, and we might be concerned about some form of retaliation.

The separation goes all ways. The injured party, the person that we hurt, needs to prioritize his or her own healing. They need to do whatever is best for them to recover from their emotional or physical injury.

And other people, those who witnessed what took place or hear about it later or read about it, they too might pull away. As you might have experienced just a few minutes ago when I told you about Brian, these situations are emotionally stirring. So people are upset. They may be unclear on exactly what happened or why it happened. They’re not sure what to say or do, and they might feel angry with the perpetrator even knowing they didn’t set out to do harm.

In addition, these situations force us to confront the fact that we have far less control over ourselves, our world, and our fate than most of us want to believe. That’s a frightening realization, so frightening that it can be easier to look away.

But I’ve learned that when we turn away from people who unintentionally hurt someone, we’re only compounding the toll that mistakes and accidents take, and that diminishes all of us. It doesn’t have to be that way.

What if we choose to support people who unintentionally hurt someone? That doesn’t mean we have to forgive them. It doesn’t mean we have to deny our own feelings. But what if we simply acknowledged that they’re hurting or reminded them that they’re still part of the community?

A few days after my accident, I received a letter from a girl about my own age. We’d never met, but she told me she grew up across the street from Brian, and in fact I had waited in her house with her mother. The girl wrote she was sorry for everything that happened and she invited me to go roller skating with her one night at the local community center. I couldn’t bring myself to join her, but I’ve never forgotten that small act of kindness.

And now when I look back on that letter, I see it met all three of the conditions for redressing moral injury: a forthright acknowledgement of the damage done, an expression of caring and concern, and an invitation to participate in community. So I think that girl and her mother intuitively understood how much I needed to feel accepted despite what I had done.

So the next time you see me or somebody else who’s unintentionally hurt someone, I wonder what would happen if instead of assuming they need their space, you reached for a moment of connection. What might occur if you just ask them how they’re doing or told them you’ve been thinking of them? You might feel uncomfortable or ambivalent, but one thing I’ve learned is that the smallest act of connection can make a very big difference for a long time.

And if you are feeling badly because you hurt someone without meaning to, well what if you reached out as well? We are all connected, even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

Remember Apollo and Hyacinth? Apollo blamed himself for inflicting a fatal injury on his lover, so he held the dying Hyacinth in his arms, and from his blood he created a beautiful flower that we enjoy even today.

Like Apollo, we have the choice to create something beautiful from our mistakes, even our tragic mistakes. But Apollo was a god, and he could do that all by himself. We’re only human, and we need each other. Thank you.