I’ve always had a problem with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the story Jesus tells in the New Testament about a father with two sons, one of whom is well-behaved and does what he ought to do, whatever that might be. The other is a wild child. He goes out into the world, doing the local equivalent is of drinking, abusing drugs, partying, having lots of unprotected sex with people he barely knows, gambling, spending too much time playing computer games…that sort of stuff. Eventually, so the story goes, the second son hits rock bottom, as one might expect, and loses everything. Then he comes crawling back to his father, contrite, supposedly having learned the error of his ways. The father, in response, throws a gigantic party, and everyone celebrates the return of the prodigal son.
The other son, understandably enough, is miffed by this. He thinks it’s unfair that the return of the ne’er-do-well is greeted with a celebration, while he’s been there all along, doing sensible things, behaving good, being loyal, and there’s no party to celebrate him. The father explains that basically he’s always happy about the good son’s presence, and that everything he has is his, but that the other son, who was as good as dead, is now back and it’s worth celebrating.
I’m really on the side of the good son here, precisely because the parable of the prodigal son is a good description of how we often behave toward our families, friends, and others.
The parable presents a case of significant injustice: we’re rewarding the guy who went out and screwed up rather than the one who tried to do things right. Now, of course, we all screw up sometimes, and there’s certainly merit in reinforcing someone who has learned from his mistakes and thus will not repeat them. But in the parable, the son comes back only because he’s starving, and he knows his father will feed him. I can hardly fault the father for taking him in, but the whole party thing is unacceptable.
When you create perverse incentives, you promote perverse outcomes, and that’s just what this parable does, and what we often do in real life. By giving so much attention to the prodigal sons of the world—and taking for granted the other ones—we reward those who go out and screw up, then come back seeming contrite. I suppose it’s human nature to pay more attention to things that we thought we’d lost than to things that are secure, but it’s awfully hard on the good sons of the world. Some of them must occasionally think, “Why do I bother? Why should I bother?”
Meanwhile, of course, once the prodigal sons of the world are back on their feet, they often go out and repeat their behaviors, sometimes many times, knowing—or at least believing—that they’ll always have a place to which they can return.
I am a bit torn on this matter, because I really do want people who make mistakes to be able to be forgiven, if they’re honestly sorry and have learned, but that learning can be costly, and lessons often need to be repeated multiple times to take effect. Also, the enthusiastic and celebratory welcome at their return is yet another form of instant gratification to which they might “addicted.” Any family with drug addicts knows that, after coming home because they’ve hit rock bottom, addicts often go out and repeat the same mistakes ad nauseam (and often ad mortem).
Of course, if one really does succeed in overcoming ones proclivities, and builds a new life (with the help of friends, families, and other resources), one is often treated as a kind of hero, instead of as an extremely lucky person who almost drowned because he went into waters too deep and choppy for swimming.
Worse, we often look down on the well-behaved. We make fun of the kids in school who do their homework, who are enthusiastic, who participate in class, who try to take a straight and narrow path. We call them geeks and nerds; we even compare them to sheep, deriding them for trying to do what they think they ought to do—as though rebellion were a good in and of itself, not an emergency tool used when necessary to fight against the unjust use of power and against bad ideas.
I’ve been both kinds of “son” in my life. I can honestly say that, from my perspective at least, it’s better to encourage people to be dutiful than to be prodigal, because many—perhaps most—of those prodigal sons never live to come back. And they never come back unscathed, undiminished by their experiences.
Be happy, of course, for the return of those prodigal sons who do return—but celebrate the ones who don’t go out and hose everything up, who try their best to do what they see as the right thing. Lionize them, even if only because this may discourage some potential prodigal sons from becoming prodigal. Virtue may well be its own reward, but it deserves a little celebration, too.
Wouldn’t it be nice to treat the people you can rely on with the same enthusiasm and affection you would show to those you thought you’d lost who have returned? We need to realize how lucky we are to have them…and to let them know that we realize it.