Typical of David Brooks, journalist, author, and social, political, and philosophical commentator, he has written a beautiful piece in his recent NYT column, “The Prodigal Sons” (New York Times, February 18, 2014). Referencing Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son*, Mr. Brooks conveys the idea that the social health of society is improved when we are neither morally wanton in our ways (the younger son in the parable) nor morally self-righteous (the elder son). It is a great and quick read if you are not familiar with the parable. The ideal is the father of the two sons, who is constant in his forgiveness and inclusion of both, and of all around him.
Mr. Brooks’s conclusion to the article (See, http://nyti.ms/1fujvFB) is that “if you live in a society that is coming apart on class lines, the best remedies are oblique. They are projects that bring the elder and younger brothers together for some third goal: national service projects, infrastructure-building, strengthening a company or congregation. The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger son gets to dedicate himself to work and discipline. The older son gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship.”
This insight is not just about squandering inheritances and sibling rivalry, but is really about maintaining a healthy outlook through patience and understanding, rather than through self-righteousness.
It’s very practical. I once wanted to remove a tree root. Using my axe and long earned, but somewhat stale, camp skills, I began whacking away. It wasn’t happening. Instead of appreciating the problem I applied more force. Right. The axe head sprang back and hit me in the forehead. Not a healthy outcome. I had built up a self-righteous grudge against the root. I learned. Intensifying will was not a solution. Gaining a calm perspective was. When I did, the wound healed without a scar.
Sometimes we become quite certain in our views of right and wrong, …judgmental and critical, even condemning. We want to just whack away at the root of what we see as “the problem”, the other’s point of view. That runs the risk of hurting everyone. The younger son wanted to rebel against his upbringing. The elder wanted to criticize the younger for his wantonness. Wantonness and self-righteousness, like bad roots, are best removed not by harsh judgment and contempt, but by a patient, understanding and forgiving awareness.
Certainly the correlation between forgiveness and health is well established today.**
The healthy approach is the one the father took. Steadily viewing both of his sons through the lens of a loving father, he embraced them both, albeit in different ways. This love of a father, in its largest context, is divine Love that reaches us all and teaches us the act of forgiveness and the embrace of mankind. Perhaps, this is the fuller lesson of the parable and a key to our societal health, as well as our personal health.
**Mayo Clinic Staff article, November 23, 2011
Published as “Your Health and Society’s Health are Intertwined” by Lake Havasu City News Herald, Friday, March 21, 2014