Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Thoughts on the parable of the prodigal son
The parable of the prodigal son is known in and out of sacred script. A son gathers his riches and leaves home only to squander and experience squalor. Awakening to his plight he returns to the home of his father who runs to him and gives him a coat, a ring and a feast. Meanwhile, the older brother sulks, but is instructed in forgiveness by the loving father.
The power of parables, as was taught by the Master storyteller, is their potential for layered meaning. On the surface this is a tale of separation and reunion, of jealousy and forgiveness.
Let us suppose it is not about a father and his sons. What if, instead of people, the parable is really about our thoughts?
Our thoughts are self-spoken speeches. They are the voice within us that cheers us on, or too often shouts into our mind that we are stupid for being human.
These negative impressions are criticisms heard as children, repeated doubts sowed by others or by our own unique foibles. To combat insecurity we resort to snake oils of wealth, fame and self-indulgence.
The prodigal son teaches that we can choose to devote our neural synapses to riches; we cannot feed two thoughts simultaneously. When we spend our thought-time relishing toys or bought privileges we depart with our attention to a far-away country. Our sensitivity is gone; we have cashed out our emotional inheritance.
Because our brains demand greater and greater stimulation for the same thrill, we need to spend more neural energy just to stay even. The fuel of excitement is finite. Our thoughts spend our wad of time and concentration on foul choices. Exhausted, they fall into the sties of swine.
Selfishly and sadly, we feed our feelings the husks of experiences that are empty in emotional nutrients. Swallowing mental trash or consuming our self-absorption can only fill a body for a short while until the whole organism begins to fail. The collapse of attention or the death of awareness soon follows.
However, like the prodigal son, our thoughts can turn homeward. We can decide to think about the goodness and security that we have known previously. Bringing our thoughts back to a place of security takes work. We have to be mindfully aware of our racing thoughts, then exercise agency to gently return them back to now.
We have to push aside fears of rejection. What if the father, instead of running to the son, ran after him, chasing him away? What if he thought, What will the neighbors say? What would the servants think when the son of the lord were required to work beside them? Would they scorn the scion?
When our thoughts run amok, which happens in depression, anxiety, arrogance, insecurity or addictions, we dread what others might think if we seek mental health treatment, as if cure is worse than the disease. Instead, the exact time for cheering is when we decide to exit the porcine penitentiary and seek directions on the road home.
When our thoughts return to the present and are not stuck in the past or mired in the future, they will be received with an open mind like the compassionate father. Our whole body will celebrate the repentant homecoming of our lost time and focus. We feast on the fruits of mindfulness when we stay in the present, savoring the world around us.
We need to turn off the autopilot life and treasure the clean robe and the ring. The prodigal thoughts fade when we stay connected with others and ourselves. If thoughts were the older brother, they would be distractions of anxiety and self-centeredness. We don’t need those, either.
It is not a great leap to imagine the characters in the parable of the prodigal son are our wandering minds. Then perhaps it is only about a son and his mistakes; you may want to put some thought to it.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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