Tough love. Do I believe in it?

[Yesterday, from Twitter, someone asked me if I believed in tough love. I actually thought about the question. I am posting my response as a blog entry because I felt her question deserved more than the usual 140.]

I think I understand, as we all do, what is normally meant when we use the expression tough love. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “protection of a person’s welfare (esp. that of a child, addict, or criminal) by enforcing certain constraints on him or her, or requiring him or her to take responsibility for his or her actions . . . behaviour which, though seemingly harsh or unyielding, is intended for the ultimate benefit of the recipient.”

To be honest, I have never thought much of expression myself, or the practice. At least not in its conventional use. All love is tough. It doesn’t get any tougher. So the modifier tends to mislead. So when I was asked, “do you believe in tough love?” I admit I heard the question a little differently.

My first impulse was YES, I do. CompletelyFervently. Absolutely. Love is the most powerful, most resilient, most unrelenting, and most buoyant thing on the planet. Irrepressible, unstoppable, and, at times, unmanageable, it is too outrageously alive and too filled with divine life to be anything else. Like taming Leviathan. And you hardly need to take my word for it.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.

—Song of Solomon 8:6-7, NIV

If the OED version of “tough love” works for you, by all means trust the wisdom of it. But I suggest that you proceed with care. Tread soft in the house of love, even as you would enter the court of God. Apply your “tough love” with mercy, with just measures, in humility and yielding. And observe the necessary restraints—love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

It really doesn’t get much tougher than that.

This is not a definitive response, certainly. But I have learned to respect first impulses. There is something uncivilized about them, something untaught and unrehearsed that I trust. Love is the only place divinity and humanity meet and agree together, where they become indiscernible one from the other. Anyway, John Keats said that “love is not a plaything.” I’m sure Keats was right.

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