FULL-carlieWhen I hear the words “tough love,” I think of my mother forcing me into a shower three days after my back surgery, coaxing me to eat and helping me walk my quota of laps around the hospital floor.

I was 15 at the time, and I whined that I’d never again be able to stand up straight. My mom told me that wasn’t true. I didn’t believe her, but she was right.

When I think of mercy, I remember my father gently helping me out of bed and saying, “Don’t force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, Kim.”

Tough love and mercy face off. Or maybe they overlap.

Tough love explains why the government shouldn’t bail out a failing economy. They should let it be. It may get worse before improving, but it works out better that way.

It’s why Peter Pan’s Wendy had to leave the nursery. She balked against the grown-ups, not knowing how stagnating a perpetual childhood would be until she faced one.

Tough love explains why The Yearling’s Jody Baxter had to shoot his pet fawn to save his starving family’s crops from the deer’s appetite.

It’s why God allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery and why He didn’t allow Moses to enter the Promised Land.

But does it explain why, after being scorned and rejected by his friend, Joe Gargery in Great Expectations pays Pip’s debts and nurses him back to health?

Does it explain why Myriel of Les Misérables forgives the escaped convict Jean Valjean for taking advantage of his hospitality and robbing him, thus saving him from a return to prison?

Or why a parent continues to support a hateful and rebellious teenager?

These examples of mercy reveal it as one of the noblest attributes of man, but sometimes the situation requires us to walk a different path, one of consequences or hardship.

One of the common misconceptions about tough love is that it costs the lover nothing.

But it can cost him everything. It can leave him resented, misunderstood and without explanation. It often comes at the expense of reconciliation and good feelings.

To define love as “the course of action always causing the most happiness and convenience” would be a very narrow perspective. Love is not the only quality we need. It is rounded out by qualities such as truth, justice and honor. Tough love is mercy, just in another form.

When I was forced to walk after my surgery, I grew stronger with each painful step. When I ate, I also grew stronger.

The people and circumstances that sometimes cause us pain only give us an advantage.

My hope is that one day we will recognize those who made us stronger by first letting us fall—that those who have loved like this will not have put effort into our lives for nothing. One day we will all see the “love” side of “tough,” even if that means waiting until the lion and the lamb lie down together, until the crooked is made straight and the rough places are made plain.