Friday, December 2, 2011

The Prodigal Son

The story of the Prodigal Son is given as an example of great forgiveness and mercy. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it goes like this.

A man had two sons that worked the land with him. One day, the younger son came to him and asked for his share of the inheritance early, and his father handed it over. At that point, he hoofs it out of town and heads off to the Wild Blue Yonder to live the good life with the money and resources he has. His older brother stays behind to keep working for their father, not wanting his inheritance early.

The younger man spends all his money on food and prostitutes. His life goes off like a bottle rocket, fast and dangerous, and he burns himself out in a matter of a few years. At that point, he is reduced to sleeping in pigpens, eating scraps given to the pigs and living in the streets. A while later, he realizes that he can't live in the sty forever, and he goes home in shame to his father to tell him what has become of himself and his inheritance.

When he arrives, he begs that his father would let him sleep in the stable and work as a slave, because he expects no more. His father has a different agenda, calling in all the farmhands and his older son and throwing a grand celebration for the younger man. He brings out a big fat calf and kills it for a feast, then puts a ring on the man's finger and nice sandals on his feet, and he rejoices that his son has returned.

Normally, the moral of the story is that the prodigal son was lost and now is found; he went off to live the "good life" and figured out that it's not so good after all, then decided to come home, where he is always welcome. His father is all-forgiving and has no lingering grudge over the man's bad decisions.

This is a charming story, but I wonder from time to time -- did the prodigal son have the right idea? Was it necessary for him to go off, spend all his money, understand what the world has to offer, and then reject it? I'll say, yes. Hear me out for a moment.

Every so often, families spawn children who are just not satisfied with a cloistered life. They want to know what's out there in the Wild Blue Yonder, and they're tired of being held back from doing what they want. Now, for most people, what they want is far more wholesome than wild spending and whores, but the point still stands. Let's look at the two brothers for a moment.

The first son in the story, the older one, is happy where he is. He goes about his everyday life without regret, working the land, reaping crops, slaughtering animals, selling food, so on. His life is relatively uneventful and secure. He likes it that way, and he's not oppressed into it, because his father is a kindhearted person. He's probably very stable and not very adventurous.

The second son clearly isn't pleased with his life. He's a "go big or go home" type. He wants to have wealth, luxury, and satisfaction. Instead of getting married young, as was the custom, he's going to go off and live a commitment-free life, where he doesn't work and doesn't have to support his partners. He is dissatisfied with constancy and security. He's probably a risk-taker.

Fundamentally, both of these are reasonable ways to live. They're the difference between the quiet, hard-working student and the one who parties at the frats all weekend and does just enough to get by. You can get by doing both; I'm not even going to bother on the point of which one is better. Unless you get alcohol poisoning and die, both of these will sustain you at the bare minimum, at least.

But in the end, as it often is with bottle-rocket types, the Prodigal Son realizes that he has screwed it up big time. He has no money and no food. He's reduced to living with pigs, which in Jewish culture are unclean animals. He eats what he can steal from them, and he lives in the dirt all day. His life is nowhere near the lap of luxury that he had imagined. So after a while, he heads home to try to clean things up. I expect that afterward, he doesn't bother trying to live the fast and dangerous life again.

What if he hadn't left? Probably he would have been grumpy and unhappy until the end of his days. Some people just have to know what they're missing, to see that they're not really missing anything at all. Curiosity, and sometimes envy, are powerful forces. He saw the men throwing cash around, buying rich foods, and spending the night with all the whores they wanted, and he wanted that life, too. Had he not tried it, he'd probably have idolized it for the rest of his life, sat around being angry that his father and brother were keeping him chained down, generally folding in on himself and being bitter about his inability to go do what he wants.

Did you ever do something utterly stupid as a kid, but realize that you learned a good lesson from it? Maybe you ate three bags of candy, felt horribly sick and threw up, then realized that this was perhaps a terrible plan and you're never doing it again? Or maybe you pulled your cat's tail, got bitten, and saw that you know, maybe it wasn't worth it to see the cat get all riled up? Yeah. I did that stuff. But you know, I'd have been angry at myself for not doing it, had I not done it. There are things in life you have to experience, just so you can see if they're as good as you think they are. You have to take the risk. You have to see what you're missing. And then, in the end, maybe you weren't missing much. Getting drunk and barfing really isn't very interesting, despite what the frat boys want you to think. I suspect that getting high also isn't, although I haven't tried. Lots of things aren't. But hey, try anything once. After all, I did once dare a friend to eat a betta fish, in exchange for me doing the same afterward. A live one. It was an experience. I don't feel the need to do it again, but hey, it was nifty.

Was the Prodigal Son's decision a good one? Not in the least. Did he learn from it? Yes. Was it probably necessary to his eventual happiness and satisfaction? Most likely. Was he a better man for having gone through something dumb and coming back home to fix it? Absolutely.

In short, I don't think it's the end of the world to be the Prodigal Son once in a while. Just learn from your dumbassery.

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