The Prodigal Son and The Artist’s Journey
I remember when I was a kid reading the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. I never really got the point of it. I found myself siding with the elder son.
“Hey, Dad, what’s the story? My younger brother takes his inheritance early and bolts from the farm. He swaggers into the big city, blows every penny on gambling and fast living and then comes crawling home begging for forgiveness. The kid’s a bum! Yet here you are, Pop, breaking out the fatted calf and rejoicing at your wayward child’s return, when I, the Responsible One, have been here all along, busting my butt to make this farm pay. It ain’t fair!”
I didn’t get the father’s explanation either.
“My son was lost, but now he is found.”
I was thinking of this the other day and I realized the story is the perfect expression of the hero’s journey/artist’s journey metaphor.
The prodigal son’s life of dissolution, his adventures in the fleshpots of the wicked city was his hero’s journey.
He left the Ordinary World, crossed the threshold into the Inverted World; he encountered enemies and allies; he suffered. Finally he hit bottom. He did what the hero classically does—he returned home. But not as the same person he had been when he left. His ordeal had changed him. He came back, whether he knew it or not, bearing a “gift for the people.”
Consider the father in the story. Who is he? He’s God. He’s the Self, the soul, the Muse.
He understands, even if the elder son doesn’t at first.
When the father considers his younger son, returned at last to the place from which he set out, he reckons three things.
- The younger son will never leave again.
The lad has sowed his wild oats. He has learned his lesson. The temptations of diversion and empty self-amusement no longer hold allure for him.
- The younger son has found (or begun to find) his true identity.
The youth knows where he belongs now. He has shed a thousand alternative identities. He has come home in the deepest and most telling sense of the phrase.
- The younger son’s creativity is about to be unleashed.
The Bible story doesn’t tell us what happened after “happily ever after.” But let’s venture an educated guess:
Two months after the son returns home, he comes to his father and says, “Pop, much as I enjoy tending the sheep and goats, the real area I’m drawn to is the olive groves. I don’t know why but I have a feeling I can make them grow better. That bare, stony patch up the hill? Would you let me plant some seedlings there and see if I can make them flourish?”
Fast forward to twenty years later. The prodigal son has become the Olive Whisperer of the province. Grovers come from miles around to learn his secrets of cultivation and propagation, care and tendance, etc.
In other words, he has found his true identity.
He has located his gift.
He has become himself, to the benefit not only of his own life and that of his wife and kids (yeah, he found a nice girl and got married), but to the whole farm, including the share owned by his older brother.
The younger son’s hero’s journey ended when he hit bottom in Sin City and came home to the farm.
At that point, his artist’s journey began.
Of course the family in the story is a metaphor for you and me, for a single individual.
The father is the soul, the Muse, the Self. Each son is a part of the whole—the stay-at-home, hard-working brother and the wild child who crossed the threshold to the Inverted World and lived out his saga of Resistance before finally identifying his true journey and beginning to live it.
If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself, here’s a passage from Turning Pro, the chapter titled “Three Cheers for the Amateur Life”:
Before we begin ruthlessly deconstructing the amateur life, let’s pause for a moment to give it its due. The amateur life is our youth. It’s our hero’s journey.
No one is born a pro. You’ve got to fall before you hit bottom, and sometimes that fall can be a hell of a ride.
So here’s to blackouts and divorces, to lost jobs and lost cash and lost self-respect. Here’s to time on the streets. Here’s to years we can’t remember. Here’s to bad friends and cheating spouses—and to us, too, for being guilty of being both.
Becoming a pro, in the end, is nothing grander than growing up.
And here’s to you, if you’re reading this, and your own term of prodigality. Don’t shortchange it. It’s your initiation. Your self-initiation. You paid for it and it’s yours. Keep it. It’s okay to flash back to it from time to time while you’re out there with your sons and daughters tending the olive trees on that once-bare-and-stony patch that is now flourishing.
Dad understands. He always did.
And so, in the end, does your elder brother.
Great post. There is a large, complex ever-changing world for all of us to experience as we grow. Many people take different routes to get to where they want to be.
Great article, and it’s a great complement to The Artist’s Journey book, and to your recent comments about Good Will Hunting (which I just re-watched, thanks!)
I was driving this morning reflecting on Tim’s new book, thinking, “Wow, my hero’s journey is just as big a mess, and here I thought I was some sort of misfit. I wonder how many books like that we could all write as creatives.”
I was also thinking about Demi Lovato and her recent relapse. I remember from The Artist’s Journey, “It’s a commonplace that artists work to free themselves from pain.”
We can free ourselves by doing the work in Eden or we can numb the pain through other means. I hope she finds her way.
Thanks again for all of this, Black Irish as a whole as been a light in the darkness for me.
Wow – I never thought about this story from this perspective – it another spot-on illustration of the hero’s journey/artist’s journey. Thanks for these posts!
Loved the post. So, here I am, crying, tears flowing as I read it. Not sure about all the tears, just happens sometimes when emotionally moved. An artist moves people with truth, with heart. All I can say is yes, indeed, the prodigal son story shares the hero’s journey. More tears as I read your version of the artist’s journey with the beautiful olive grove metaphor and the gift of the olive whisperer.
You’ve touched my heart.
And the Muse is smiling.
I’ve lived it, Steve and often joked with my aunt about it over the past decades because my brother is the prodigal son to a ‘t’. I’m the older sister, the good one. Back then in the midst of it I never understood it, my goodness never mattered. It was hell he put us through growing up. It all happened like it does in the story and he hit bottom after a tragic accident that put him on the right path again and yes, he’s married now with 2 kids and all is as rosy as can be. He rose to a Saint in my parents’ eyes, all is forgotten and he is still being praised up into the skies. From the outside it’s absolutely fascinating. 😉
“So here’s to blackouts and divorces, to lost jobs and lost cash and lost self-respect. Here’s to time on the streets. Here’s to years we can’t remember. Here’s to bad friends and cheating spouses—and to us, too, for being guilty of being both.”
I remember reading that when first introduced to Steven Pressfield, and how it smacked me at the time, how I’m reluctant when life adds a wrench to my tool box.
So, does the father understand because he’s taken this journey before?
You had me at “Olive Whisperer.”
LOVE this Blog. I don’t know maybe each family has a “prodigal son story” in their midst. For me what came up was “forgive them for they know not what they do” and the words to the song Saving Grace with the words “I once was lost but now I am found.” Tim Grahl’s RUNNING DOWN A DREAM was an “exhausting read for me. [For me] the exhaustion FELT may have more to do with MY “running from a dream.” It was the feeling “when is he going to STOP.” A question I have needed to ask myself is “when am I going to STOP IT.” PS: Steve’s Interview with Oprah. THE BEST…
Steven Pressfield, master story teller. Taking aged philosophy and teaching – turning it in mind. Making it fit this day. Thank you for your books and weekly postings.
As great as this post is, as most of what you do is, I have a sense that I am moving in the right direction. Aware that this will not be easy, yet be conscious of each step of the journey and embrace it.
Goose bumps Steve. Thank you for everything you do.
Luke 15:31. The father says to the elder son: “Son, thou art forever with me, and all that I have is mine.” Including the olive grove presumably…so there is more to the story…..elder son will give the younger son the inherited land in return from some of the olive profits?
Thanks for pulling back the curtain again, Steve. I never made that connection with this story, and now it’s so obvious! I call these hidden in plain sight moments the theory of red shoes.
You’re never aware of red shoes until you have a reason to notice them—see an ad for them, your friend just bought some, you re-watched The Wizard of Oz. Then suddenly you notice there are red shoes everywhere. It’s a recognized phenom with a fancy name…which isn’t nearly as fun a way to remember it.
Now you’ve got me looking for the hero/artist journey everywhere. Way cool!
The kingdom was always his — and it is always yours. All you have to do is show up.
There is also a podcast of Joe Rogan and director Guy Ritchie on this movie. Just search on youtube Make Your Own Kingdom, Joe Rogan and Guy Ritchie. It is also fabulous.
I am the prodical son. Battered, bruised, but out of the ashes, arisen. The Golden Child, my older brother called me. He was the one who did what it took. Life was a lark for me. A little over a month after my mother had died, strokes showed me how real it can get. I was 51, my youngest son (having five sons) was 10. Three years later, still self medicating, still un…. uncomprehending, unconsolable, then, remarkably, God gave me a good shaking! About the artistry, the words come in dreams of day and night. I think in poetry. The burden is Light.