2016-07-01

Tough Love And Another Failed Narrative

Taking a trip through the narratives of our past reveals the emotional complexity with which society was once equipped. I sometimes worry that we are more poorly equipped these days.

"Babylon and On" album cover
Image courtesy Groove Music

I've been revisiting an old, old album from my favorite 80s band, Squeeze, Babylon and On. This was a hit album at the time, but in hindsight it was not their biggest album. While many people recognize the band's biggest hits, such as "Pulling Mussels from a Shell," and "Tempted," the only people who would recognize the hits from Babylon and On at this point are dedicated Squeeze fans.

The third track on the album is called "Tough Love." Here's how it begins:
There she sits in an empty room
The look on her face says it all
A bruise appears round a crying eye
As the tear drops sadly fall
He knocked her over he hit her
And told her she's stupid
He's high as a kite once again*
So a woman sits alone, with a black eye, which she got from her husband or boyfriend, who was drunk and/or high at the time. Before you guess how the story ends, here's the final couplet of the first verse:
She knows that tough love is needed
To save the love of her friend
The rest of the song tells the story of how the protagonist uses tough love to help her man get clean. She throws him out of the house, he sobers up, they talk and argue about the whole issues, and eventually he stops "the drugs and the drinking" and "he's back in her arms once again."

Importantly, the song ends with the words, "She knows it's tough love that she finds in her heart to dissolve the pain." So this is not just a story of how he got clean and she forgave him.  It's also a story of compassion and forgiveness. She loves him, and she is strong when he is not. Her love and her compassion not only see her through the difficult process of helping an addict get clean, but also help her heal her own heart at the end of the process. It's not happily ever after when he gets clean; it's happily ever after when she takes the time to heal her own wounds after helping him through his demons.

Lucky guy.

What strikes me about this song is that it's the kind of good story that would never be told today. In today's world, getting high and beating your wife is verboten, as it should be, but it's also unforgivable. A fictitious character who does such a thing in the year 2016 is an unabashed villain. He's not worth saving. Of course she's stronger than he is, so she would leave him. If he managed to clean himself up after that, it's none of her business. At best, they would come to a friendly understanding of each other and move on with their separate lives. But under no circumstances would he ever find himself "back in her arms once again."

This narrative is coupled with the another significant one, which is the belief that addiction is simply a disease, that addicts have no control over their actions. Once you catch this terrible, hereditary disease, you are stuck and there's nothing you can do except never touch drugs or alcohol ever again. Period.

In today's world, addicts aren't allowed to heal and rehabilitate themselves. They're given the opportunity to simply acknowledge their disease, make amends, and then proceed as forever-broken people whose only "second chance" is finding a new circle of friends, a new family, and etc.

Longtime readers of this blog know how critical I am of drugs and of addiction. Still, the modern treatment of these very real situations leaves everyone who ever has to experience them with two choices: (1) Girl leaves boy and boy becomes a chronically diseased, broken person, or (2) Boy dies of his addiction disease. Neither of these options seems particularly therapeutic to me.

Way back when, society still had narratives that enabled recovery and healing along multiple possible trajectories. Maybe there is still hope - maybe if you get clean she can still find it in her heart to forgive you, and the two of you can move beyond your past mistakes. Maybe you can build a positive future for yourself.

But in today's emotionally stunted world, it's scorched earth. He hit her, therefore he is evil; he takes drugs, therefore he is diseased; the only viable solution is for them to break up - she'll live happily ever after she finds a good, non-diseased, perfect guy; and he'll live miserably but wisely ever after once he acknowledges his disease and wears it on his shirtsleeve until the end of time. Maybe if he's lucky, he'll find some equally broken woman, and they'll both brood together in their brokenness. But happiness is for perfect people who don't ever make mistakes - especially not bad mistakes.

The problem here is that people make terrible mistakes, and that emotionally mature human beings are capable of compassion and forgiveness. Not every person who ever makes a terrible mistake deserves our forgiveness, of course, but that doesn't mean that there is a list of mistakes out there which, if any one of them is committed, means that all love and compassion falls off the table and we cast the sinners out into the outer darkness of broken-people-land.

That's just not rational.

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* On my copy of the album, in place of the lyric "He's high as a kite once again," vocalist Glenn Tilbrook sings, "He's out of his head once again."