His Knees Buckled and He Sobbed

It is said that children spend the first ten years of their lives worshiping their parents and the remainder of their lives trying to forgive them.

I read an autobiographical poem about  the poet experiencing  Stendhal Syndrome when he looked at Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and it had something profoundly disturbing to do with his relationship with his father and I got to thinking about familial relations — parents and children.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the father is saintly, perfect seemingly, wise and, of course, the son is a prodigal, meaning “one who spends or gives foolishly.” Read bad. Good dad, bad son, but that’s not right, not even close.

Okay, I get that this is supposed to be about God as the father, but how many children reading the parable get that? What they get maybe is “Yes, that’s my dad,” and later “Wait a minute, that’s not my dad and why am I cast as the bad one?” Maybe there should be an asterisk attached to the parable explaining that the father should not be confused with our fathers.

Oh, then there is “the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children…,”
and that makes a lot of sense given the fallibility of parents and it is nice to see the balance — good dad, bad son, bad dad, good son, good mom, bad daughter, bad mom, good daughter. That certainly works to level the playing field, but that’s not right either. No wonder this whole familial thing is so fraught with difficulty and danger like navigating the potholed streets in Michigan in the spring.

My son told me the story of when he barked at his wife and his son overheard. My grandson then shouted, “Bad dad” at my son.  Well, my son isn’t a bad dad, but a child’s mind goes to those simplistic, absolutist labels.  Part of the problem is when we don’t get beyond them.  It would have been even more damaging if the situation were reversed and my grandson did something that my son didn’t like and my son said to him, “You are a bad boy.”  Well, he isn’t a bad boy. He simply might have done something my son didn’t think appropriate. Identifying a person’s being as bad is an act of shaming. Naming an action of a person as inappropriate might evoke guilt over the act but there is no judgment on the person’s worth as a person.

Such labeling itself is misguided and fraught with danger. That labeling of the intrinsic worth of an individual isn’t fair. Let’s take good vs. bad as a state of being, as an act of shaming out of the picture and just talk about humans who do good and bad things, right and wrong things — ultimately all forgivable things. And then there are all the things that are just a lot of things, the neutral things done without value or judgment added, the things done to get through the day, the “warp and woof” of everyday life. The quest becomes acceptance and forgiveness and all its benefits, especially to the one doing the forgiving: “Please forgive me; I forgive you, I love you.”

It usually takes a while but it’s great for us when we get there, assuming we ever do. For me to say that to one parent, that parent had been dead for ten years.

The poet, in an explanation of the poem, concludes that he doesn’t understand what was going on with his extreme emotional reaction to viewing the painting.  For his sake, I hope some day he does and that may be the subject of another fine poem.

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