The late poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser famously said, The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. It’s not just words that make up stories. A scientific equation is a story, and so is getting up from my seat and stretching—it’s the story of back care for an editor. We can tell a story with the expression on our faces. What does it tell you when a loved one rolls her eyes at you, or blows you a kiss? How do you feel when a stranger winks at you? Flips you the bird? That last story may not end well.
I’m convinced that to live healthy, sustainable, and meaningful lives in a fragile environment with limited natural resources, we have to undergo a full-scale change in our attitudes. All the technology and all the good intentions in the world won’t change people’s minds about the cars we drive or the resources we consume; but a good story can. A good story can shake up our world-view and open up new ways of seeing.
In his public preaching, Jesus used stories in a powerful way. His parables in particular turned the world of his listeners upside down. For example, his story of the vineyard workers—some worked all day, and some only an hour, but they all were paid the same. Both corporate CEOs and union bosses would have a hard time swallowing that idea. But Jesus was making a point about the graciousness of existence, the generosity at the core of life that can’t be earned, bought, or sold. Think about love, for example, or creativity, or just plain having fun. If we put a price on those things, they often disappear into thin air.
When I was a Catholic priest I used to enjoy preaching about another one of the parables, the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal son asks his well-off father for his inheritance early. He goes off and lives large for a time. I imagine a wine, women, and song kind of life, with maybe some shady investments and cocaine making it a contemporary story. But an economic downturn triggered by a drought causes the son to lose everything. He decides that it would be better to live as a servant on his father’s estate than to continue living on the street and so he goes home and begs his father to hire him. The father throws the prodigal son a party, puts rings on his fingers, and is overcome with joy that his son has returned. The brother of the prodigal son, who stayed home and obeyed all the father’s rules, isn’t moved by his brother’s return. I’ve worked for you for years, he said, and not even once did you throw me a party.
Most of us think the point of the story is that God—represented by the father—welcomes the sinner. But that’s only part of it. When I preached on that story in church, who do you think were in the pews, the prodigal sons and daughters? No, the people who go to church every week tend to be the ones who’ve stayed home and obeyed the rules and did what was expected of them, like the dutiful son. At the end of the story, both the father and the prodigal son are rejoicing, but the dutiful son is resentful.
After several years of being a priest, I realized that the best way for me to influence people in my ministry was to be a happy, strong, compassionate, and creative person. But often I was depressed. I didn’t like to preside at weddings—I can admit this now—because I wanted to be married and I resented the happiness of the couples. When I was deciding on whether to stay or go, a friend gave me a whole new way of looking at things; he told me that if I left the priesthood and decided to get married, I would be joining a large community of men and women who could support me in the effort. I was worried about being lonely, not realizing that living outside the norm, as a celibate man in a religious community, was making me lonely already. Many people find a good balance of solitude, friendship, and service that makes a celibate priesthood a good option, but not me. I needed a partner.
I think we can learn from all three characters in the Prodigal Son story, and be change agents for ourselves and for others. We create new stories by our actions as well as by our words. Like the prodigal, we have to be risk takers at times. Anyone who leaves a secure job to go off on her own, for example, has to have a bit of the prodigal in her. Mostly we associate the father in the story with God. But we can be divine instruments when we generously offer mentoring to a young person in the home performance community, or when we work “pro-bono” (for the good) because to love unconditionally is to act in closest approximation to the Divine.
Maybe because I can relate most to the dutiful son, I find the most insight by standing in his shoes. I was following the best of intentions in sticking around as a priest for years after there was some pretty strong evidence to support the proposition that it wasn’t for me. I felt grateful for the faith that educated and enlightened me, but I was trying to be good to the detriment of being honest with myself about what I needed in life. I had to act a bit like the prodigal son and take the risk of leaving to be on my own for a while before I could find a life that better suited me.
One way that we can be change agents is by first spending some time getting to know people who think differently than we do. I had a great conversation with someone in our community who presented the other side of the “whole house professionals versus HVAC crowd” debate. The HVAC crowd has wisdom to share, and if we want to move forward with the whole house approach, we better listen. Then we may be able to have them join us, sign up for a subscription to Home Energy, go to ACI conferences, and join Efficiency First, RESNET, and BPI. We may even have to let go of some of our most cherished opinions.
Just as the good son in the Bible story could learn a thing or two from his brother, we may have to admit that the people who frustrate us the most may just have a piece of the truth we need. We need to hear their stories as well as tell them our own.