Until Tyler was fourteen years old, his dad beat him. Then, a girl that he loved committed suicide. By high school, Tyler was “just looking for an escape from everything that had happened.” That’s when he started smoking meth.
As he describes in a few pieces at the I Believe in Love Project (where I serve as a contributing editor), he’d wake up, smoke a bowl of meth, and snort some pills. When he got home from school, he’d down the hardest liquor he could find. He was spending about $300 a week on drugs, and he never did finish high school.
“When I was high, I didn’t give a crap,” he says, “and that’s what I was looking for, that feeling of ‘I don’t give a crap.’”
After a few years of this, he met Jazzie, a cashier at Kroger. After saying goodbye to her after their third date, he prepared a bowl of meth. But this time, he couldn’t do it. On that third date, he explains, Jazzie started asking about his memories of growing up. Tyler told her about some good family times he had forgotten. And he remembered the time that his younger brother, jumping on a trampoline, started choking on a popsicle. Tyler saw what was happening, ran over to him, did the Heimlich maneuver, and probably saved his brother’s life.
“I had forgotten about that,” he said, “but remembering that made me feel good about myself. I had I saved my brother. I remembered that I had done a good deed in my life.”
So instead of smoking meth, he called Jazzie. The next night, he confessed to her his meth addiction. Her response? She told him that if they were going to be a couple, he was going to quit, and she flushed his meth down the toilet. Then she cared for him the next week as he went through withdrawal.
Her persistent and surprising love transformed him, he says.
That’s what killed me, what broke me down to tell her that I was taking meth: she just accepted me, she didn’t judge. Everybody in this world judges, but she accepted me for who I was. She thought I was a good guy, and all I needed was a little push. So with her, I wanted to get better. I didn’t want to be that guy that does meth anymore. And when I found out she was pregnant with my baby, I said, “Watch this shit, I’m gonna be a good dad.”
On the one hand, the remedy for drug abuse that Tyler suggests—“Saying ‘I love you, but I want you to quit’ means a lot more than ‘I’m not gonna have anything to do with you if you don’t stop’”—is so obvious that it seems to hardly merit repeating. On the other hand, Tyler’s complaint—“Everybody in this world judges”—is a reminder that our response to young men like him is often the opposite of Jazzie’s. It’s easy for us to think of them as deadbeat dads, druggies, no-good losers. We give up on them, baffled by their gross irresponsibility. It seems—and not without reason!—that they have given up on productive membership in society, that they have lost all ambition.
What we often know yet often forget is Jazzie’s genius: she thought Tyler was a good guy, and that “all he needed was a little push.” His dignity had taken a hit—there was some deep suffering under the façade of tough, unbreakable Tyler. Jazzie realized that stern moralizing was no way to reach that Tyler, but neither was uncritical acceptance of his drug habit (which is why she delivered the ultimatum: her, or drugs). Whether or not she knew it, to reach broken and suffering Tyler, she would have to help him remember his dignity, to help him remember that his life meant something, to summon forth his best self. Where others might see an example of irresponsibility and deviance, she saw a man of suffering and a crisis of dignity—and she knew that he was better than meth. As Tyler put it, “I had forgotten who I was. I was lost, and what it took was Jazzie helping me to realize who I was.”
Why is this so important today? It matters immensely for how we consider what to do about the “coming apart” of America’s well-educated people—productive, married, and orderly—and the increasingly down-and-out working class—unemployed or underemployed, unmarried, and disorderly.
Commenting on Tim Keller’s discussion of the biblical story that Keller re-frames as “the two lost sons,” David Brooks invites us to “Imagine if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity.”
Brooks continues, “The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted.” Instead of greeting the younger brother with a stern lecture, the father throws a feast. Why? Because as Brooks notes, “A feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.”
What young men like Tyler need is the unflagging insistence that they are accepted, and that they have something important to contribute to their families, workplaces, and communities. And when people like Tyler begin making an effort to turn their lives around, they need an invitation to share their story with others who are similarly suffering, and to help them. People who have suffered want to help others who are similarly suffering, and they are arguably in the best position to help.
A merciful response is by no means naïve about the capacity for human evil, but it insists that the good is ultimately more powerful than evil. Thus, a response of mercy recognizes that if we want to deploy the most powerful weapons against things like drug abuse and delinquent fathers and other thorny social problems, we must seek out the good in a person’s life—to look for the “space in which the good seed can grow,” as Pope Francis put it.
Mercy can also help us to see things as they really are, instead of how we think things are based on ideologies and stereotypes. Mercy can help us to see that the person addicted to meth may be, as Tyler said he was, “screaming for help.” That the person who says that marriage is just a piece of paper may not be a raving anti-marriage ideologue, but hurting from past relationships. As one divorced woman told my wife and me, “I tell people marriage is just a piece of paper and I’ll never do it again…. But that’s just me saying, ‘I’ll never get married because I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want to be cheated on.’”
For thorny social problems, we do need just laws. But mostly we need friends, family members, and neighbors who practice the art of mercy.