“Exile” – An Inquiry Of Social Discourse

Taylor Swift’s 2020 album, folklore, took the world by surprise midsummer during lockdown, bringing with it the renewed vigor of adoring fans, who were amazed by Swift’s prolific creativity during quarantine. The album included sixteen new songs, one of them in particular, entitled “exile,” standing out from the rest for its collaborative feature of indie folk artist Bon Iver (Justin Vernon). In many ways, “exile” is similar to many of Swift’s classic breakup songs, filled with ballad-like strains of heartbreak, nostalgia, and a strong dose of cynicism. Yet, unlike most of her heartbreak songs, “exile” strikes an eerily familiar chord with our current cultural climate—one which seems to suffer from an epidemic of social discordance and communication impasses.

The song is told from the perspective of two ex-lovers, each reminiscing about the problems in their former relationship, their personal frustration and grief, and the pain which has gridlocked both of them from truly hearing the other’s heart.


Though both partners are trying to move on, each of them still harbors painful memories of past and present rejection. The song begins with the male perspective (sung by Bon Iver):

I can see you standing, honey
With his arms around your body
Laughin’, but the joke’s not funny at all
And it took you five whole minutes
To pack us up and leave me with it
Holdin’ all this love out here in the hall

His words tell the story of his present jealousy and past pain, seeing his ex-girlfriend with another man and remembering how quickly she had “packed him up” when she broke his heart so long ago. His loneliness becomes acute and seemingly pointless, as he finds himself doubly injured by rejection again:

You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?
You were my town, now I’m in exile, sein’ you out
I think I’ve seen this film before

Then, we shift to the female point of view of the encounter (here, voiced by Taylor Swift):

I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

From the woman’s point of view, though she is now with another man, she has given her ex-lover hundreds of chances to make up, to win her back. His jealousy is hurtful and insulting to her, given the amount of opportunities she claims to have given him for reconciliation. Both voices join together in the chorus, in painfully ironic unison:

We always walked a very thin line
You didn’t even hear me out (You didn’t even hear me out)
You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)

Over the course of the song, the couple seems to be conversing, but not truly connecting; talking at rather than with one another. Each is echoing the other’s accusation, blaming the other for his/her pain. At this point in the lyrics, the song is a brewing storm of restrained anger and wailing grief. The pain of an unresolved separation has rendered the couple helpless in its throes, and incapable, it seems, of moving forward. Both partners are living in a self-imposed exile, unable to hear or connect with each other over the sound of their own voices.

An Epidemic of Exiles
By all accounts, “exile” could hardly be more reflective of the tense social climate over the past year. In an age of social media wars, political upheavals, and racial tension (not to mention a global pandemic), many of us have been left feeling frustrated, heartbroken, hurt, and wholly misunderstood by those we feel should have understood and loved us best. Social discourse more often takes the form of a firing squad, making it more and more difficult for people with opposing viewpoints to converse kindly and graciously—or for that matter, to converse at all. Much like the couple in Swift’s “exile,” it is easier to let our own hurtful experiences define how we view ourselves and others, blinding us from truly seeing with grace and openness. Compassion and empathy are virtually impossible when the primary objective is self-preservation. Is there a simple way out of this gridlock of social division? A cure for the epidemic of miscommunication, insecurity, pride, hurt, and grief that often blind us from truly hearing one another?

When I first heard “exile,” I spent a lot of time pondering Swift’s words in relation to my own life, as I struggled to navigate communication with close friends and family, a feat which was proving well-nigh impossible amid such a grueling year. My immediate response during conflict can be to quickly retort or defend my position, to clarify or provide additional explanations to be further understood. By desperately trying to be understood, I am only marginally focused on hearing what the other person is saying. And so, the frustrating cycle is never broken.

Exercising Extravagant Compassion
What I’ve had to learn over and over again is that true listening requires extravagant compassion. It requires an openness to truly hear, without needing to immediately respond. Hearing someone out takes patience. It takes persistence and humility to rise out of your own personal woundedness to place yourself in the shoes of another. Extravagant compassion means retaining a posture of openness, honor, and grace, with no attempt to defend or justify one’s own position. Henri Nouwen describes this superhuman kind of compassion as one which is sourced from the love of God the Father. He writes, “To become like the Father whose only authority is compassion, I have to shed countless tears and so prepare my heart to receive anyone, whatever their journey has been, and forgive them from that heart.”1

This extravagant, Father-like compassion Nouwen describes demands a wholly abandoned trust in the Lord, no matter the outcome. Submitting our own desires, our preferences, our hurts, and our hopes to him allows us a greater freedom to communicate with gentleness and to listen with no ulterior agenda. For me, it has meant asking myself some very difficult questions before entering into a discussion: Can I posture myself in an attitude of generosity that does not require reciprocation? Am I willing to extend grace without demanding it in return? Can I extend compassion regardless of the response I receive?

Extravagant compassion is not an action which comes naturally from our human hearts, nor is it one that will always feel good to give. Clearly, left to human power alone, communication and connectivity lead only to broken hearts and exiled relationships. We need the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to guide our thoughts, words, and actions in extravagant compassion. And it is the self-sacrificial love of Jesus that has prepared for us a lighter, freer way of connecting with one another, one which “[loves] without expecting to be loved in return, [gives] without wanting to receive, [invites] without hoping to be invited, [holds] without asking to be held.”1

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Article by Elizabeth Clayton