A Parable for Our Times (Ideas #115)

Once there was a father and three sons, who all lived in tremendous joy. They lived simply in a small farmhouse and worked hard to draw their sustenance from the land. Still, they felt great strength from always being together. Moreover, whether in speech or in silence, their family’s love was always palpable.


At night after a simple but tasty meal, they would sing together into the late hours of the night until slowly, one by one, they all fell asleep. Early in the morning, their father would wake them up to start a new day very much like the one that passed.


Their father would tell them of all sorts of interesting things, things both deep and simple, all of which somehow also filled them with even more warmth and love. Most importantly, he instructed them in how to live a good life.


The boys occasionally discussed their situation, wondering about what lay beyond the farm. They loved their life with their father but could not help but wonder if he was right about everything.


One day, the second child decided that he had to see the outside world for himself – come what may. He went to see his father to inform him of his decision. His father said to him, “I will not stop you, but it could well be that once you leave, you will never really be able to come back.”


When this son went out into the world, he was able to adapt very quickly. Having grown up in such a loving and industrious home, he was able to find favor with everyone he met. As a result, he was quickly introduced to the right people and was able to translate the skills and values that he had learned at home into major financial assets. After a few years of amassing wealth, he decided that it was time to go home and to share his fortune with his father and brothers that he still loved so dearly.


When he came home, everyone was happy to see him, including his father who also continued to love him very deeply. After a very short time, however, it became clear to everyone that this brother was constantly distracted. When the father spoke, he was not listening. When the brothers were singing, his voice would trail off. He went to sleep late and could not get up in time to work. Even the simple but tasty fare that he had grown up with was no longer to his liking. He tried to convince his father that they no longer needed to really work on the farm themselves since he now had the money to hire others to work for them. Not only that, they could also enlarge their home, buy nicer clothes and better food. His father told him how much he appreciated the offer but that these things were meant for the outside world and not for the farm.


Before the second brother could decide what to do, however, the third brother resolved to take action. Noticing that his older brother had been so negatively affected by the outside world, he decided that he was going to change that world and make it a better place – rather than bringing the world to the farm as his brother had done, he would bring the farm to the world.


He too took leave of his father. His father told him that his intentions were praiseworthy but that it seemed to him that neither the family nor the world was yet ready for such a project. His father’s advice notwithstanding, the son embarked upon his hopeful quest.


When he got to the world, he spoke with everyone who would listen, explaining the virtues of simplicity, honest work and brotherly love. Many were interested in what he had to say. They even created all sorts of organizations modeled on his teachings. In spite of the positive inroads that he made, the people of the world could not internalize these teachings. It was just too radical a change for them to make.


That being the case, this son turned to other ways of helping his fellows. He figured that people were too busy surviving to really think about what he was saying. What he had to do was to find ways of giving them more time. So he invented medicines that made people live longer and machines that allowed them to finish their necessary chores more quickly. Though people now lived longer and had more free time, they still couldn’t quite follow his teachings. Instead, they found more things that simply had to be done. They created games which would make them feel good. These games would be played and watched and discussed for many hours at a time, no one really knowing why they were so important. They also invented popular music and drama. This too would occupy countless hours, without anyone really knowing why it was so important.


In the end, the third son also went back to his father and two brothers, hoping to return to the life he had so much enjoyed as a youth. Of course, that was not possible. First of all, life on the farm had changed, but so had he. His love for his family aside, the third brother felt somehow superior to the others. His heart was not in what the others were doing and as a result, he felt very lonely.


Most critically, he was no longer satisfied with how his father ran the farm. Why work so hard, when machinery could ease their burden? Not only that, but if they could restructure their daily activities and diets, they could have more time to think about even more ways of restructuring their activities and diets. Of course, his father would hear nothing of it, lovingly pointing out that these are things that are meant for the outside world and not for the farm.


When the eldest son had seen what happened to his two younger brothers, he resolved that he would never leave his father’s farm. He would chide his brothers about what they had done, hoping to bring them back to what they had once been. Of course, this did not really help. In fact, his brothers started to resent him, especially since he had never been outside the farm himself. This only made the elder brother more desperate. If he could not convince them while they were awake, he would try to speak to them when they were asleep. And if that didn’t work, he vowed that he would develop all sorts of ways to convince their children. Indeed, he started to work on the mass production of candy, so that he would be able to win their children’s hearts. He did not want to say it, but he feared that his father had not been strict enough and should have done more to stop his children from going to the outside world. Things really got out of hand when he even started censoring the wisdom that their father would continue to tell the brothers whenever he still had a chance. His father was very sad for him, for while this brother’s intentions were good, he too had left the farm and wasn’t even consciously aware of it.


And so it was, the farm that had once been a bastion of joy and harmony was shattered by strife, mistrust and frustration. The children intuitively knew that their father had been right all along, but they couldn’t make the leap of faith back to simple acceptance of what he said. No matter how much they tried, they all could not quite trust their father completely. After all, if he knew so much, why is it that he had not been able to prevent their current state of affairs? 


Of course, their father was the saddest of all. He knew that he did everything that he could to make his children happy and successful. Moreover, he knew that they all wanted to truly come home but he also knew that they could not.