Here is a particularly toxic batch of spackle I see a lot. Making a virtue out of loving the “brokenness.”
Maybe it’s because I once lived with a hoarder that this sentiment totally creeps me out. He could look at a bunch of moldy tennis balls and see potential. I saw festering, useless items that he refused to part with.
But I get the romance in beautiful brokenness, really I do. The tragic fuckupedness that only your love can fix! The Pygmalion complex, where you’re going to take this gutter snipe and turn her into a lady. Or the fellow who’s a diamond in the rough, but with your heart of gold, he’ll quit being the antisocial, raging hermit. (Beauty and the Beast.)
Loving the beautiful brokenness is a kind of narcissism, I think. It’s really about how saving someone makes us feel — superior, helpful, noble. At worse, martyred. There’s something horribly condescending about loving someone In Spite Of.
Oh, but the lovers of beautiful brokenness don’t see it that way. They see it as an all-encompassing love that doesn’t expect perfection. It’s compassionate. It’s a love that hates the sin, but loves the sinner. As if the two things could be teased apart. Sinners are not defined by sin! (Doesn’t that sound Orwellian?) As if the person and the things they do are entities that should be judged completely separately and have no bearing on one another. Well, except as an excuse. I do Terrible Things because I am Broken.
Loving the beautiful brokenness is definitely part of the big spackle reserve people in reconciliation must draw upon. In reconciliation forums you see the term used all the time — well, yes, she keeps having affairs, but I must be understanding because she is the victim of sexual abuse and this is how she acts out. Or, well, he has a deep hostility towards women because of his mother, and that’s why he hooks up with prostitutes on Craigslist. He’s broken. These actions are part of his affliction. Or her syndrome.
Invariably there is some gesture at redemption. Therapy. 12-step. A label. But the truth about the broken person’s character is usually amply on display in their actions. He’s not all that sorry. She gambled away the mortgage payment. He relapsed. She broke no contact with her affair partner. He didn’t do the therapy homework. She had a long, flutterly excuse that made no sense whatsoever. He won’t find a job. Ad infinitum.
Being broken is a nice circular argument. Why did these things happen? Because they’re broken. Why did they get help, but this shit keeps happening? Well, hey, they’re BROKEN. We must be patient with these things!
And that’s the savior’s dilemma then. Patience. You can’t call them out on their shit, because that’s not very compassionate of you in the face of their brokenness, is it? Oh, and they got their FIRST. You don’t get to be broken by what they did, acting out. You’re just collateral damage. Nothing personal. Don’t think this is about you, okay?
Robert Hare, the researcher on psychopaths, once said in an interview that psychopaths are hard to spot. They’re pretty ordinary at first, but if he had one give away — it’s that they appeal to your sense of pity. They come across as rather sad sausages. Harmless. Perhaps a bit broken.
Compassion being total chump bait.
I don’t think we should cease to be compassionate people so we don’t get played. What a dark world that would be. No, I think we shouldn’t give compassion, succor, or aid to people who do not help themselves. You want to help a person who is leading the charge to fix whatever made them broken.
The world is full of countless people who have overcome adversity of the worst sort. I can think of two examples in my own life, of people I’ve known who experienced total depravity, and come out the other side terrific human beings. One fellow, who I’ve written about before is Rocky Williams, a friend of mine in grad school. A white South African man who was a spy for the ANC, was discovered after 9 years, imprisoned, tortured, and spent 13 months in solitary confinement (during which time his mother died). He escaped (I met him in exile in London), got a PhD, and then went back to a new South Africa and spent the rest of his life reforming militaries around the world. He became a colonel in a new South African Defense Force.
That shit should’ve broken him. If anyone had an excuse, it was Rocky. And he was the jolliest, most engaged person you’d ever want to meet. He said about prison, that he’d survived the worst and the world had nothing else to throw at him. He felt quite fearless as a result.
The other person, I won’t name, was a friend of mine who was an incest survivor and went to court many years later to prosecute her father, an MIT-educated engineer (happens in the “best” of families…). She had an incredibly sick, messed up upbringing. And her father abused her and her two sisters into adulthood. Again, this shit should’ve broken her. It didn’t. She got a lot of therapy, had a trial (he walked, the judge refused to let her sisters testify or have medical records put into evidence, so it was his word against hers, and who wants to believe such horrors?) She married a good guy, and now is the loving mother of three sons. A normal, tax-paying citizen.
Neither of these two people took the hideous injustices in their life and used them as an excuse to abuse other people. I find the “broken” excuse so toxic, because it disrespects the vast majority of survivors who don’t go on to ruin other people’s lives. I don’t think it’s abuse that compels people to behave abhorrently, it’s entitlement. It’s OKAY for me to hurt you because I feel hurt.
Mollycoddling “broken” people, loving their potential, and not judging them by what they’re actually DOING with their lives, is dangerous. It keeps you entwined in their lives without regard for your own well-being.
And guess who they’re going to hurt next?