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Tough Love

by on July 26, 2020

Tough Love

by Marco M. Pardi

If you are visited by pain, examine your conduct.” TALMUD. Rabbinical writings.

All comments are welcome and will receive a response. All previous posts are also open for comments. This post might inspire those who have not previously commented to do so. It is strongly suggested that, if you have not registered as a follower, you do so as it makes posting comments easier for you. And, your comments are less likely to go into the roughly 600 SPAM emails I receive daily, mainly from Russians with erectile dysfunction.

I should have read the Talmud before beginning school. Paddled by nuns, pounded by monks, I took a while to review and restructure my oblique deviousness and make it into a successful career. But those injuries healed long ago. And, without doubt, many would agree I must have learned something from them. Which brings me to the pains of the present day and what lessons may be learned therein.

I’ve written several times of the recent developments in the United States, chiefly the emergence of the decades old American Fascist Party now dressed as Republicans. And, I’ve written of the increasing global threats to most life forms as these same people dominate the industries which, for their short term economic gain, are polluting and killing this planet beyond repair. But some readers might wonder how else I spend my day.

I subscribe to and/or belong to at least fifty organizations ranging from medicine to politics, science to environmental and animal rights, and national and international social issues. Consequently I receive hundreds of emails daily, about half of which enable me to take action in some form. Careful to avoid sitting too long at a stretch, I pace myself with two to three hours dealing with these emails interspersed with other activities. So, I average a bit over six hours daily reading and engaging where I can. But lately something has been developing in my consciousness: More than just the nagging thought that many of my petitions and carefully crafted letters fall on blind eyes, or never reach the addressed person anyway (my State is firmly Republican; every meaningful state office is in those hands), I’ve begun to wonder if trying so hard to help people is in fact enabling the problems from which they are suffering.

I have always reacted on behalf of the dis-empowered, be they human or non-human. Very early in my college teaching career I was the age of the average student. That, and my subject matter, encouraged students to seek my advice and, sometimes, help in personal matters. One student was having an ongoing battle with alcohol. He and his mother were quite poor and his mother was disabled. Several times his mother, or a friend, called me to come over and talk him through another bout. And, several times I took him to county detox to get dried out.

But then a young woman came to me and asked if I would accompany her to an Al-Anon meeting. She was afraid to go alone. It was at that meeting that I first heard the concept of “Enabling”. I was so stricken by the clarity and sense that the next time I got that call to talk Xxxx through a bout I told his friend and his mother to just lock him out of the house. They did. Not long after, he enlisted in the Army and got straightened out. He was not the only one I “closed the door” on. Al-Anon also said a person has to recognize and acknowledge they have a problem. And for some, that comes only when they “hit bottom”.

Almost 20 years later, after working in field epidemiology for just over six years, I transferred into research at the Atlanta headquarters of the Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. I had been working in Public Health clinics in several cities, dealing with cases of sexually transmitted diseases. The research division I entered in Atlanta dealt with HIV/AIDS. So, the physicians I worked with were curious about my work background. Most of them had no idea CDC posted clinicians around the country to deal with STDs. And, they were appalled that the services provided were not only absolutely free, but must be provided even if the patient refused to disclose his or her sexual contacts. I heard a very resounding chorus of “ENABLING” from my gathered colleagues. They were outraged. What they said was perfectly logical, and all I could offer in return was that these policies were effective in getting people to come in for treatment and that we did manage to treat a good percentage of contacts. Contact tracing. But, I did have to admit that a very high percentage of patients were multiple repeat infections who knew they had a free “fixer” at their nearby clinic.

But this was a few levels up from letting a repeat drunk sleep it off in the bushes. I thought about the daily parade of hostile patients, the times I, and others under my supervision, got assaulted, the “You gotta treat me” expressed by so many, and the intense pressure from state and federal levels to “crank out the numbers”. I thought about how my most dire, and I thought effective, warnings to patients apparently meant nothing as I saw them again and again. And then I thought of the babies born with congenital syphilis. I thought of the unsuspecting sex partners now infected with HIV, for which there was no treatment in sight at that time, the babies born addicted to drugs and condemned to lives in this morass we call the “underserved populations”. Alcoholics Anonymous, a blatant religious cult despite its denials, preaches of a “spiritual awakening”. What, if anything, would awaken these people?

And so, as I write this, I have an email page open to the hundreds of emails I receive daily. Many of them are from environmental and animal welfare groups I’ve subscribed to and supported for many years. Others are from social issue and political groups I’ve subscribed to in the past few years. How many petitions will I sign and send today? Probably close to one hundred. How many letters will I craft to politicians, from the President down to the local dog catcher? Probably a dozen or more. And how many petitions for increased financial aid to the now unemployed, and those about to be evicted, and those with dwindling food supplies, and whatever other crisis is put before me will I sign and send today? I don’t know. My keyboarding fingers, 5 out of 10, are slowing as I wonder if I’m not ENABLING the “I’m aboard, pull up the ladder” mentality of those who voted the current regime into power, those who were in their “comfort zone” and so couldn’t be bothered to vote and those who voted the “Tea Party” and other sociopaths into Congress before bothering to find out they were distinctly unqualified, those who openly committed to making the Presidency of a Black man a failure even if their actions brought the country down around them. Are these people like the student I “helped” whenever he needed it? Are they like the STD patients who know there will always be someone there to medicate them for free? Can a person hit bottom if we rush to place a safety net under him every time he does something stupid? Does a person feel he has a problem when there is always someone there to solve it for him? I hear so many express a desire to get things back to the way they were. But I am convinced that a person who has truly learned from a crisis does not wish to return to the circumstances, however pleasant they may have been at the time, which got him into the crisis. People who talk of “returning to normal” do not recognize and acknowledge what normal actually was.

And yet, I am deeply aware of the collateral damage. I will forever carry the memories of the children I saw living in hunger and squalor while their mothers “ran the streets” trading sex for drugs. I understood those children in ways many do not. My daughter has the family albums showing my brother and me as “very slim” figures during WWII in Italy; the occupying Germans stole all the nutritious food. I was three years old and standing in baby shoes; the occupying Germans stole most of the clothing. I’m nearing 80 years old and carry the effects of inadequately treated childhood Pertussis; the occupying Germans stole most of the medicines. So, no one needs to tell me to think of the children when considering the limiting or withholding of the safety nets.

So the classic “I hope he’ll be okay” when locking someone out of the house, and the “we do what we can do” when treating unnecessary diseases morphs into a new paradigm: By always jumping in and supporting people are we in fact preventing them from recognizing and acknowledging the problem, or must we let them hit bottom and accept the collateral damage?

Returning to “normal” would be the worst thing we could do. It was a fantasy built on unseen suffering for far too many, and a tragic cost to the environment that was far too much. Major changes are needed. But will a society addicted to a fantasy actually feel the need to change? Without hitting bottom? Is rushing to place safety nets the way to bring “spiritual awakening”?

This blog is read in many countries. I know I can speak for several of the regular commenters when I express the hope that we will be privileged with comments from those who have not yet done so. And, for everyone, thanks for what you do.

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  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, first I’d like to thank you for your dedication to activism.  It’s the one thing some of us can do that doesn’t cost us anything financially, and as you know we’ve seen small victories over the years.  And I’m always glad to know more about you and see more of YOU in your blog.  That also helps your readers get to know the author better, even if they’re too shy or hesitant to respond.  If you’re able I hope you don’t throw in the towel as an activist or stop writing.  Our actions and inaction do have the ability to affect future generations even if just one person is reached.  Sounds trite but it’s true. 

    Regarding the alcoholic student you helped:  I think until someone is truly ready to quit self-damaging behavior, they can’t really be helped.  And until they reach the core reason for self-harm, they may never quit.  I think determining the core issue or issues is more important than reaching a so-called “rock bottom.”  But I also don’t think the individual should be completely abandoned before that stage; welfare checks can save lives.  Setting boundaries can work. Well-intended attempts to help may enable the person not yet willing or able to change.  I’m relieved I’ve never been forced to make those decisions as a parent.  Would I give a heroin-addicted son or daughter money, or have their lives at risk on the street as a sex worker, or forced into criminal activity?  I simply don’t know.  But I don’t actually believe everyone needs a “rock bottom” to seek help on their own. Perhaps reinforcing that idea has actually harmed rather than helped people.  “Well, I haven’t been arrested/hospitalized/fired etc yet, so I’m fine to have another drink…”  

    The physicians you spoke of might have been appalled that STD services were free.  But so are emergency room visits to an extent even if the patient is billed.  What about repeat heart attack or stroke patients eating their way through coronary heart disease?  Should they be refused treatment in the E.R. or by first responders if they lack the ability to pay?  Is repeatedly treating them enabling their self-medication with food?  Sometimes heart disease is a disease of the mind as much as it is the body.  Isn’t denying impoverished STD patients free treatment potentially harmful to them and their sexual partners?  First, do no harm. 

    A great percentage of the patients you treated were probably sex workers.  And a high percentage of sex workers are transgender individuals, or at the very least gay.  Many begin sex work as runaways who were ostracized by their families t a young age – too young to be safely out of the home.  Others have addictions to support because there are so few resources to get the help they need.  Difficult to imagine why they might care enough about themselves to use condoms when no one else might ever have cared for them.  Perhaps their partners wouldn’t permit them to practice safe sex.  Others simply just don’t care about harming themselves or others, and while I do have trouble with the latter, the rest shouldn’t be punished for their actions. 

    As you know, I support the idea of Universal Basic Income.  Where there is extreme poverty, there is certain to be increased crime.  A base income given regularly to all adult Americans is a trickle up economy which benefits everyone.  It would be a supplement, not a replacement of income.  Without a reliable source of income, it is impossible to teach fiscal responsibility to people who have been impoverished for generations.  And I have to wonder how many of the jobs lost during this pandemic were already at risk for future termination due to the rise of A.I. A base income may be necessary for Americans because of all the countless jobs lost and soon to be lost to robots as well.  The problems began long before the public health crisis.  

    As a retail worker, my job isn’t currently at risk because my workplace is considered essential.  That isn’t the case for most retail workers.  Their jobs have been at risk for years. Not only that, because of the brand for which I work, my position will not likely be obsolete any time in the foreseeable future.  My company’s brand is excellence in customer service, so it’s doubtful we will ever see self-checkout in our stores.  The brand uses human cashier checkout as a way to cheerfully end what is supposed to be a helpful shopping experience.  At the moment I’m extremely fortunate and clinging to that job as best I can.  

    But for millions of Americans, especially women and black women in particular, retail work is all they’ve ever done. And if not retail work, service industry “jobs.”  I use “job” loosely for people such as restaurant servers; for the most part they are unpaid slave labor forced to rely on tips to survive.  Customers will use any excuse not to tip or to tip poorly, even though they are well aware how the system works. They still willingly eat out.  Restaurant servers can now also be at added risk for termination should they receive bad social media reviews, and those reviews simply aren’t trustworthy.  That industry in itself has always been broken, and it isn’t the fault of those employed in it.  It should be unlawful not to pay servers minimum wage.  But what should servers do to enact change?  It’s doubtful petitions would help.  Perhaps some national “walk out of your serving job” days would.  The industry would come to a complete halt.  Yet it’s doubtful many would be willing to risk losing their job by taking that type of drastic action. 

    As for voting, as I said to you the other day many who want to vote cannot due to voter suppression and systemic poverty and oppression.  Voting machines never seem to be broken in wealthy areas of metro Atlanta such as Johns Creek or Buckhead.  It’s always South Fulton – the poorest area of the city.  And that area mostly votes for a Democratic government.  What can they do?  Most are just trying to survive.  They don’t have time as you do to be an activist; they may not even have access to the Internet. As a rideshare driver in 2018 I was in some of the poorest areas of the city and it broke my heart so see how people are forced to exist.  It is shocking. And it isn’t their fault; their zip code determines their current existence and sadly, their future.  A drive to that area tells an ominous story with a sad ending – one of Georgia’s worst-performing elementary schools on the same road not far down from the United States Penitentiary.  

    We live in a country where at least two million people do not have access to clean water sources, many of them Native Americans.  Federal and State governments have abandoned and forgotten them. If we don’t continue to fight for others with less than we, who will?  I choose the fight of empathy, the fight of compassion, and fighting for others is what I consider an act of so-called “love.” As a survivor of abandonment, abandoning others who need the most help isn’t anything I’m able to do, and I’m content with that.


  2. Thank you, Dana. Once again, you demonstrate the beyond exceptional analytical abilities you so brilliantly used in your classes. I would have paid to have you co-teach with me. And, I’m glad you see that I’m expressing the questions that I think should arise in any thinking person and not simply proposing ill thought out positions.

    I see your analysis as standing on its own merit, and am greatly looking forward to the responses of others it will reach.

    A+ doesn’t give it enough credit, but that’s all there is on the scale.


    • Dana permalink

      Thank you, Marco. These are questions about which I’ve been thinking for some time, especially the idea of Universal Basic Income. Thomas Paine proposed the idea, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and more recently, Andrew Yang.

      UBI would be not enough to sustain an individual, but would act as a reasonable supplement for all American adults regardless of their financial status. It would work if tech companies such as Amazon paid federal income tax. I support technology that reduces the number of tedious and dangerous jobs for humans, but those jobs need to be replaced with something.

      As Andrew Yang has said, it’s time to redefine what we consider “work.” Someone staying home to care for a child or aging parent with additional needs is working. Sadly, it’s unpaid.


      • I completely agree about caretakers, especially for Alzheimer’s patients. We’ve known for several years the average caretaker of these patients loses six years of life expectancy.

        On the question of UBI, this brings out the people who call themselves anti-socialist. I have always found that odd in a country which claims itself to be a Christian nation. But then, Christianity here is almost entirely unrecognizable.


  3. From a Medical Clinician: This post is one I can identify with. Sometimes I think it is reasonable to separate enabling on the interpersonal and societal level. On the individual level, using the person struggling with alcoholism as an example, the family member can stop enabling – leaving the person to hit “rock bottom” and forge recovery. But this recovery usually takes place within a larger system of societal support – like counseling and rehab for the uninsured. I think societal safety nets could be presented both ways – for some people a lifeline and path to improvement and a revolving door for others. It has always struck me as odd that in the US, it is OK to live and be hungry on the street, but not OK to die there. On the societal level, I am optimistic that there will not be a “going back” after this year.

    I try to approach most decisions pragmatically running through potential worst-case scenarios for each decision and choose the one with the least (or an acceptable level) of risk – I think that’s the clinician training in me 🙂 A few thoughts:

    1. I think signing petitions is separate from enabling people who voted the current administration into power.
    2. I think we may be in our current predicament because a lack of “enabling” – too many people without access to quality education or jobs that can support them – I am not talking about rich people who make up the administration; it is a minority who influences the majority here. I am talking about the average Joe who is vulnerable to fear-driven propaganda.

    If we continue to not support our neighbors we run the risk of more of the same – because I think this is what got us here in the first place. If we support our neighbors by investing in mental health, drug recovery, education, etc. we risk spending money – which we are already doing but only a small few seem to benefit from our spending – and possibly improving the social structure that laid the foundation for our current political climate. In short, I argue – we were already at “bottom” and this is part of recovery.


  4. Thank you, Clinician. I agree that poor education is at the core of problems, including the ease with which a privileged few entice so many to vote against their own best interests. But something about the tactic of sprinkling money over the masses brings “bread and circuses” to mind. And, I’m not convinced that enough people are yet aware of the real consequences of their recent actions, such as bringing this regime to power. But yes, we must invest more in quality education, and that means rejecting Betsy DeVos’ attempts to dis-empower the public schools in favor of the privately owned charter schools she claims will “bring the children into the kingdom of God.” We need our students to develop their minds, not lose or surrender their minds.


  5. From Elizabeth Martinez:

    “I can’t tell you the secret of life and I don’t have any answers for you. I just wanna be left alone”. Don’t you miss being involved? “I was the East Coast distributor of involved. I ate, drank it, breathed it. Then they killed Martin and Bobby, they elected Tricky Dick twice. I spent all my misery years ago. I have no more pain left for any of you”. What do you want? “I want them to stop looking to me for answers. I want them to start thinking for themselves!”

    – Terrence Mann /Field of Dreams.

    Right now, a lot of people want to get back to their normal tv sports, bars, jobs, theaters, etc. in order to escape their miserable and meaningless lives. Most people will not take this time as an opportunity for a physical, mental, and spiritual reboot.

    I think there’s a difference between helping someone do something they can’t do for themselves and doing something for someone that they should do themselves.

    That being said, where do you draw the line? The issue is not always a black and white one. There are grey areas. Government safety nets were lifesavers for me when I was in need and I am forever grateful.

    Furthermore, it has been my experience that some people are just unsaveable and may the Force be with them. If Jesus Christ was a failure in his times, who am I?

    No man is an island. There have been many people who have guided me and helped me along the way… some without knowing they helped. They are the angels in my life. Marco Pardi being one.

    Boundaries are crucial. I came to the decision that I would give money to 3 institutions and that’s it. My heart lies within animals, so I’ll take in 3 at a time and that’s it.

    As far as politics, I think we the
    People had a lot more say than we do now and, for the most part, I feel powerless. I can only cope by accepting that I don’t have the power to change it, surrender to that fact, and take care of myself. May the Force be with me. At times I will call/write my senators and representatives on issues that I cannot remain silent. After my visit to Dachau, I promised myself that I would never remain silent on issues of human rights and social justice.

    Is this kinda like amor fati? I don’t know. “Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it” – Nietzsche.


    • Dana permalink

      Liz, I too have relied on government assistance and would have starved without those two 6 month rounds of SNAP – one in 2016 when I was a student, and then in 2018 when my dog and I became suddenly homeless through no fault of my own (gentrification by a ruthless developer). Both times I felt unnecessary guilt for relying on temporary assistance, but that’s what it’s there for. I received $41 per week; it’s a supplement but I was able to make it stretch with careful planning.

      Sadly, the current administration has ensured that it’s now even more difficult to apply. In Georgia as of 2019 application is now in-person only. For anyone without a vehicle or no money for public transportation, we can imagine the challenge.

      I too have been fortunate to have had some angels in my life, including Marco. I don’t know if I’d be here today without his wisdom, support, and example.


  6. Thank you, Liz. You have lived through times that have broken other people. Yet, after all you’ve seen you still understand the problem that is, as you say, “Where do you draw the line?” In this new country we live in our efforts often seem pointless. But you soldier on because you know, to be true to yourself, you must. I admire you.


  7. jkent33 permalink

    I recall the term Tough Love a decade or so ago in a book title. Some educated motivational speaker touting his version of assisting those whose problems were dictating their lifestyle pushing them to the front of the line we call normal behavior expected out of everyone living in that group. I identified it as someone with a problem causing that person to appear different. That manification is ok as long as you don’t appear too different from the ruling members. I found it associated with those deviated too far from the norm about to become a burden to the ruling class. Various forms of discipline were readily made available to force that person back in line with the majority. The quickest way to attend to these deviates is putting them in the carceral system locked away so as not to harm themselves. But in contrast it was so society couldn’t see them…out of sight-out of mind. Problem there was the carceral system only bunched them up with others like them only making them worse. I preferred to help these people by asking what they expected to happen now that they have been identified for their behavior that got them in the spotlight so their peers could see. By painting the clear picture of their differences it was up to them to change. Of course, I assume people wish to be loved and accepted in order to be able to have the love and respect we had before. Hopefully, they will take the initiative to resume their place back in society they had before. After all when we were all young children love and acceptance were essential to maintain our self respect and pride. I’m a pragmatist needing to use all of my senses to survive with these constraints we live under in order to be happy and fulfilled. By loving and respecting one another we must also accept the fact we all need refresher courses and positive affirmations totalling hundreds to keep the weaker members strong and satisfied. We accept that as impossible but we reward ourselves by giving some each day. If we can do that we all win. People are naturally drawn to success and that satisfaction pays dividends for all to share. Sure it is almost too good to be true but we all are happy in the end because it pays dividends to all involved. If we follow those with the most “wins” our rewards are greater in the bigger picture. By asking good questions people will reveal everything you need to know to repair the damages to keep everyone happy the majority of the time. The “wins” come naturally if we communicate using these good questions the narrative tells itself. I’m not saying one size applies to every behavior but little by little tough love has a chance of winning. Everything has a beginning and an end forming the circle. The better we paint the picture for those deviated from our norm the better chance we have to keep a greater number happy and prosperous. Don’t kid yourself I know this all appears as rose colored glasses. But it keeps me satisfied believing I did what I could to pull everyone across the line at the same time. I read about troubled children who were asked to perform in a race. Like all of us some are stronger than others. The kids were told to simply line up and when the gun sounded to be a winner they needed to cross the the finish line. When it started the faster more able bodied runners went ahead. As they neared the finished line the faster kids turned around to help the others cross the line. They kept going back until they were all across the finish line. Afterwards, the officials asked the stronger ones why they kept going back to bring the other slower ones across? They said because otherwise you won’t be a winner! And who doesn’t want to be anything but a winner. I’ve strived to go back and make as many people as I could be winners…is that the tough love of which you speak?


  8. Thank you, Jerry. I’m glad to have you with us.

    My use of the concept Tough Love is intended to enable people to experience the consequences of their choices and behaviors. I very much doubt that people who are continually shielded will learn. As a child, I remember often saying, “Let me make my own mistakes”. I did learn some things, the hard way.


  9. “Be careful when helping someone that you aren’t interfering with their karma.” This piece of wisdom came to my attention a couple of months ago, and I take every opportunity to pass it along to others. I have been guilty for far too many years of “helping” people who could have survived without what turns out to be my interference in their lives. The homeless man I have fed, clothed, and occasionally sheltered for lo these many years, when that help came to an end, simply walked out of my life. I wish I could say this made me sad, but it is more of a relief than anything.

    I think we all need a little help now and again. I like helping people, but there is a fine line between being useful and being used; one I have tripped across more than my fair share. My mother (who, as you know, suffers from Parkinson’s dementia) once asked me how she could succeed if she was never given a chance to fail. Today she attempted to vacuum the floor, a rough task at the best of times. We don’t always get along (she recently told me I had ruined her life), but I can’t help being proud of her for never giving up on life, no matter how difficult.


  10. Thank you, Rose. That advice always raises a fundamental question: How could we be doing something that is not “in the Plan”? And you know I’m not referring to any “divine” plan, but to the mysterious ways our lives unfold and interact with everything around us. How often have we looked back and realized something we didn’t see at the time, only to realize it all fit?


    • I have long believed that all things happen for a reason, how and when they are meant to happen, and so the life-changing things are beyond our control. What we do control is how we respond to them. So, if we help someone, perhaps they were meant to be helped and we were meant to do the helping. Others who were not destined to receive that help, were perhaps instead destined to work it out for themselves. It is what it is.


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