We all crave the kind of love and affection that encourages, supports and affirms us no matter what. It is this kind of love that ‘fills our tank’ so to speak, inspiring us to pursue our closest held dreams, and lifting our spirits during times of intense trial and challenge in our lives. So why then do those who hold the power in our society so often call for policies of ‘tough love’ towards those who can least afford to bare it: asylum seekers and refugees, indigenous communities, addicts, the poor and marginalised? As individuals and society as a whole, we desperately need to find ‘another way to love’.
‘Tough love’ has become somewhat of a mantra in my own country Australia of late. ‘Tough love’ was exactly what was called for by The NSW Minister for Family and Community Services, in an article that recently sought to diagnose the causes behind the myriad of complex and interlocking challenges facing one of Sydney’s toughest public housing communities. And ‘tough love’ is certainly the unmistakable message behind the Australian government’s new immigration campaign, “NO WAY. They will not make Australia home”, which, as my mate Jarrod McKenna aptly put it amounts to, “…telling desperate people not to jump from a burning building without providing safety from the flames.”
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But whether it’s a single mum struggling to make ends meet in a public housing community racked by higher than average rates of addiction, unemployment and crime in Sydney’s West, a father risking his families life at sea for the sake of his children’s future, or a street kid here in Nepal where I now live, being beaten by police for sniffing glue to suppress his hunger, the story is the same, we need another way to love.
3 reasons why ‘tough love’ rarely works
1.) ‘Tough love’ often comes from a position of superiority and detachment
The poor and broken hearted don’t need others to tell them that their lives are messed up. They already know that. When others who have never experienced anything remotely close to the anxiety and uncertainty that comes from living a life on the margins (myself included) try to ‘intervene’, claiming to have the all of the answers, it often comes across more arrogant than compassionate.
2.) ‘Tough love’ doesn’t call out the best in us
Studies, like those conducted by Daniel Goleman, author of, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, describe how positive encouragement stimulates the part of the brain that enhances mental abilities such as, “Creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, and the processing of information”, the very mental capacities most needed for people to come up with solutions to their own problems. However, messages that are consistently negative and focus on an individuals faults and flaws, are only likely to increase feelings of stress, fear and anxiety, further restricting the horizon of possibilities for individuals and communities trying to break out of often strongly engrained patterns of predictably harmful behaviours.
3.) ‘Tough love’ is often guided by selfish motivations
It can easily become a veil for those with power to define solutions for others on their own terms. Those who advocate for ‘tough love’ often hope that the outcome will be quick, decisive and final, whilst sending a strong message to others, “Don’t even think about doing the same.” What such an approach fails to recognise is that people don’t choose poverty or dysfunction. Such circumstances are often the result of a complex set of historical, social and environmental factors, that can take years of counselling, support, training and empowerment to overcome.
Now, I hope you’ve heard my heart. I’m not saying for a minute that there isn’t a time where ‘real love’ doesn’t get ‘tough’ in the form of challenging negative behaviours and saying ‘enough is enough’. Such love has its place. Instead, what I am advocating for, is the kind of love whose starting point is to come alongside those who are marginalized and hurting, with a posture of humility and solidarity, rather than weighing from above, from a position of superiority and judgement.
Understanding the alternative: Real Love
Real love demands far more from us as individuals and a society than tough love ever will. When we willingly give up control and the desire to ‘play God’ in the lives of the poor and marginalized, and instead allow them to set the path to achieving their own goals and preferred futures, the journey can often be a long and messy one, filled with plenty of ‘false starts’, dashed hopes and shifting expectations… But boy can it be a beautiful one.
Just ask mates of mine, like Jon Owen and Jarrod Mckenna, who along with their families are shining examples of this ‘real love’ in action.
The Owens actively made the decision to move themselves into public housing in Bidwell Park so that they might fully participate in the life of the community. Their aim is to ‘love recklessly and rejoice constantly’, and they do this through sharing their homes, community cooking groups, homework clubs, prison chaplaincy and community gardening. They also choose to live on the local poverty line* in order to identify with their neighbours situation whilst demonstrating that it is possible for a family not just to ‘survive’ but ‘thrive’ in Bidwell Park. (*In Australia, this is the Henderson Poverty Line, which for a family of four means about $650 a week)
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Meanwhile Jarrod, with his wife Theresa and son Tyson, just last year begun the ‘First Home Project’, which instead of saying “No way!” to those fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries says, “You are welcome here”, by opening their own home and lives to people fleeing their own countries who just want somewhere safe to call home. The recent addition of a Hazara family of 7 takes the home’s total number of residents up to 20!
Real love is possible but it requires all of us to lay down our own lives and agendas when it comes to ‘helping others’. Instead, we must come up with beautiful and unexpected new ways of offering love and support that recognise the dignity and agency of those that we are trying to help and ultimately places the power and potential to change in their own hands.
Question: What do you believe is the best way to ‘love others’?