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.