Strong in the Broken Places

Two weeks ago, within three days, three very – very! – different shows, Legion, Billions, and Grey’s Anatomy, invoked the same Hemingway quote as significant plot devices.

The quote, from A Farewell to Arms:

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

You’ve probably seen – or heard – this quote often. It tends to pop up wherever and whenever there’s an event – real or fictional – that hurts someone – physically or, more often, spiritually and/or emotionally. It’s just one of those quotes that not only sounds perfect, but feels true, somehow. A universal truth summed up in thirteen words.

Maybe its poignancy lies in the fact that Hemingway himself was broken by the world but never quite healed. I mean, taken in the context of A Farewell to Arms, it reads almost wistfully

I think it’s simple, really: when people get hurt and deal with the pain they get a chance to heal and when they’re done healing they are stronger.

That’s certainly how those shows interpreted the quote – it was the centerpiece, the theme, of not only that episode but the entire season. Maybe the entire series.

I’ll admit, though, that the idea for this a blog piece didn’t really take hold for a bit, even though I really was so struck that three vastly different shows all used the same quote in the same week!

That’s because – mild spoiler alert – Billions handled it differently. Wendy – the psychiatrist – went through the wringer this season . . . but survived and seems ready to thrive once again. She’s congratulated on coming through the ordeal, Hemingway is invoked, and she doesn’t buy it. “It’s not true, life doesn’t work that way.”

That took me aback. First, because I don’t believe it’s not true – if I did, I couldn’t do my job (see below); second, because I can’t envision a psychiatrist on TV, radio, internet, real life, and anywhere else ever saying that, never mind meaning it. It’s pretty much the antithesis of what their profession says it does.

So, I was thrown. Billions may be over the top, but it has always gotten therapy right. It bothered me . . . until it hit me that not only is Wendy obviously stronger in this episode, she wields power over the rest of the characters. Especially the two ostensibly main characters, her husband and US Attorney Chuck Rhodes; and her employer, the hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod.

Wendy, I’ve come to realize, gets Chuck and Bobby to do what she wants by constantly picking – surgically – at the places where they’ve been broken. She knows exactly where they’ve been hurt, hits those places over and over again, and never lets them heal. Because, she knows that if they ever do heal, she’ll lose her leverage over them, they’ll no longer follow her ‘advice,’ as subtlety as its given.

If you watch the show and disagree, watch the scene where she ‘advises’ Chuck to drop out of the governor’s race. Now, let’s talk.

Once I recognized that (okay, it’s a theory, but it’s mine and it fits), I was able to reconcile the quote with all three shows.

Which brought me back to the thing that’s really hit me since those shows over that week: we’re here to help our clients get strong in the place that divorce has or is about to break.

I think we do it well, but to get there – to go through a divorce or equally hard family law matter – one has to be ready to accept that it’s going to hurt, then move through it.

The hurt’s temporary – I promise – the strength is permanent.

Written by Kristen Marcroft