Have you seen After Life with Ricky Gervais? We whipped through seasons one and two recently and I was stunned by how deeply the show’s premise—and even more, the show’s characters—struck a chord in me.
If you haven’t seen it yet, all you need to know is that the main character, Tony, is a widower whose wife, Lisa, has died of cancer. The show follows his breaking heart and his stumbling search for a reason to live after losing his wife, who had been the centre of his whole world, and his entire source of joy and love.
It may sound like a downer, but I promise you it’s totally worth watching. Probably one of the best shows I’ve watched in a long time, especially in terms of connecting me to my own heart and humanity.
And you know what? I think we could all use a) a really good cry, b) a reminder that life is fleeting, and c) a deeper connection to our shared humanity, because Life, right?
When I talked about the show with others who’d seen it, what I noticed what that most of the conversation highlighted Tony’s unfailing love for his wife. His complete devotion to her. His commitment. People were inspired by a love so powerful that without it, the hero was lost. He was utterly shattered without her.
I mean, I love a good love story. I saw all of the above too, and it was hard not to put myself in Tony’s shoes, thinking about an inevitable day when I’ll lose the one I love, or he’ll lose me (unless we both pass at the same time, à la The Notebook). And I understand this is a story about grief, and grief is a shapeshifter.
And yet. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a subtext to this story. A meaning deeper than the obvious tale of love and loss, and the pain of grief, and the discomfort of healing.
A message. A lesson. A warning.
It’s a cautionary tale about codependence, about being at cause for our joy and love, and not outsourcing it to someone else. It’s about how to be responsible for our own hearts, without giving them away or locking them away. It’s about the importance of being able to create our own joy, love and happiness, instead of seeking them in others, like we’re Indiana Jones looking for the Holy Grail.
It’s a warning about devotion turned up too high, which shutters our ability to see more broadly, leaving us with a narrow sightline and tunnel vision. Devotion turned up too high can morph into fixation or obsession when left unattended, hobbling our possibility and making us damned near impossible to live with or be around.
Driven people can have a lot of devotion in their being. It’s who they are, and it’s how they show up.
Tony’s devotion shows up in his adoration of his wife, which is beautiful. And it also shows up in his inability to allow his grief to move through him, to let himself heal, and to find love and joy in life, and not just in one person who is no longer there, which is painful for Tony and for those around him. Imagine watching someone you care about being relentlessly codependent with a ghost.
I loved Tony’s love for Lisa, but what really stood out for me was how heedless and unhealthy it was, ultimately, for Tony to make Lisa be the sole proprietor of all of his love, happiness and joy. She alone was where he looked for and found his light, love and joy. So when she was gone, she took his ability to enjoy life with her, not because she wanted to take it—she very much didn’t want that to happen, actually—but because he refused to hold onto his happiness himself.
It turns out, as we learn, that devotion runs in the family. Tony’s father was much the same, we discover. He adored his wife, and she was the centre of his universe. His love for his wife was an inspiration for Tony in his own marriage. But the key difference was that Tony’s dad let his devotion for his wife amplify his love, joy and happiness, not narrow it down. He let it be a source of his happiness, not The Source.
What I noticed most was the difference between a man who let someone be a source of joy and love, versus a man who made someone into The Only Source of love and joy. One of them lived a life of abundant joy and happiness, and the other couldn’t, because his joy and happiness was finite and it was taken from him.
As someone with a lot of drive and devotion, this jumped out at me. I know it would be, and is, easy for me to pour myself into other people I care about, but I also know—from experience, that great teacher—that it doesn’t work out the way I want it to. Living for our loved ones might feel good in the moment and look good on the outside, but eventually, it’s going to die out, like a flower in the desert. Either we’ll resent them or they’ll resent us, and more likely both will become true.
Living for someone else is suffocating, and the object of our affection will need to escape the well-meaning oppression of our devotion, leaving both sides hurt and confused.
Codependence isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it can be unhealthy. If you’re in relationship with other people, and especially in close relationships (family, romantic partners, children), it’s likely there is going to be codependence at play.
But we can also be aware of our codependence, and consciously choose ways of interacting that meet our needs while expanding who we be and the world in which we live, rather than unconsciously reenacting old, unhealthy patterns of relating that contract us and diminish our experience of life and the world in which we live.
Living for someone else might make for a great love story, but it’s not a great way to go about living a life. Remember Romeo and Juliet? Oof. Hey you two crazy kids, how about you wait like five minutes before acting on your emotions and literally causing the end of each other?
Making someone else be the only reason you feel love, joy, happiness, contentedness, peace, or whatever else you long to feel, is a set up for you and a set up for them.
It’s risky, because what if something happens to them? I’m not saying that we don’t want to open our hearts and risk loving someone in the fear of the pain of potentially losing them (although that’s totally a thing we all do and an entire topic for another post), but I mean it’s risky to put your heart in a box and give it to someone else to safeguard, refusing to hold onto it yourself, as if it were a hot potato.
And it’s unfair to them, because that’s a helluva lot of pressure to put on another person’s shoulders, even if they do love and adore you. If someone loves and adores me, I hope my love and affection will lighten their load, not make it heavier.
As soon as you’ve outsourced your love and joy and purpose, you cease to have any control or agency over it.
You can’t make your own anymore. You’re at the mercy of Fate and what will happen.
And, if anything does happen, and your heart winds up broken, you’re not even left holding the shattered pieces, because you weren’t holding it in the first place. This means you can’t piece them back together into something new, something clarified by the fire of loss, something more fragile and more hardy, and infinitely more precious, all at the same time.
Sharing the journey means we can share our love and joy, as well as our suffering and sorrows. We can walk with each other through our peaks and valleys, the highs of life and the lows. But we cannot walk it for them, nor can they for us.
If you want to have more love, joy and happiness in your life, then you’ve got to find out where you’ve outsourced it, and take it back. Discover whether you’re living for someone else, and learn to live for yourself. This is the only way you’ll be able to create your own joy, love and happiness, which means you’ll have more than enough to share.
Without any judgment, where are you creating codependence in your relationships? Where have you allowed yourself to outsource your access to love and joy and happiness and purpose?