Prodigal Sons


My frequent source of inspiration for these blogs, David Brooks, has reached all the way back to the Christian Bible for his column today. Drawing on the parable of the Prodigal Son, Brooks makes an analogy to two major segments of today’s society. When the Father embraces his second son, who has squandered his life away, the hard working conscientious first son gets his nose out of joint, turning on the father for essentially dissing his high-minded life style.

Brooks makes an analogy to what he deems is our broken society today, full of metaphorical second sons who are pissing their lives away while the employed middle class is living the high-minded life of the elder son. He writes:

…We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.

But. as in many parables. there is a twist when the father tells the older son that his umbrage is misplaced. His response comes out of smugness, not out of respect for his parent. Brooks continues:

The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.

As he often does, Brooks hits the nail almost on the head. What is needed is more than mere acceptance, it is love and care. Acceptance is a good step, but it is too passive. Love is active, constituted by caring actions that express the full acceptance of one’s existence as another legitimate human being. But he redeems himself when he recognizes the need for strengthening or creating community. Membership is one of the essential domains of care in my taxonomy of care (see Sustainability by Design). Community is created by the connections among its members. Community alone cannot restore the health of our society. Too many other domains of care are left unattended. Learning is one that is is bad shape as is family. But membership is a good start to awaken the essential idea of connectedness. Without connectedness, human relationships are limited to transactions: contextless interchanges devoid of care.

Connectedness is a reflection of context; a sense that all parties to what is to be enacted are part of the same world. Brooks offers some examples, including “national service projects” and “infrastructure-building.” Not bad, but unless the awareness of connectedness is made explicit, the results are not likely to be deep or lasting. Service has become something one buys these days, just another transaction. Connectedness through work, which is the essence of these projects, requires a consciousness of solidarity, another tie that has all but disappeared. In any case, Brooks piece is well worth reading.

(image: Rembrandt, The Retrun of the Prodigal Son)