The Prodigal Son: It’s Not the One You Think

by Nancy Downing
December 9, 2019

It’s all too easy to compare our addicted children to the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the parable, we focus on this younger son and how he went astray and squandered his share of his father’s wealth. In similar fashion, we dwell on our addicted children, their misbehavior, and their misdeeds. Perhaps we need to examine the older son, instead, and realize that many of us are prone to falter in the same way that he does.

The younger son took his half of the inheritance and left home to enjoy his unearned riches. He lost it all and came crawling back home. His father was eagerly awaiting his return and immediately welcomed him with the best garments, jewelry, and a slaughtered calf on which to feast in his honor.

When the older son, who had been working in the fields, saw his father welcoming his brother home with open arms, he felt resentful that he was never given even an old goat for him and his friends to enjoy. His father replied, “But my son, all I have has always been yours!”

You see, the older son was reacting with a sense of entitlement, believing that he “deserved” to get what seemed unearned by his brother. But when one feels entitled, one does not recognize the gifts that are already present in one’s life. Although he never squandered his father’s riches, the older son was equally ungrateful in his heart.

Of course, the younger son did initially feel entitled to his father’s wealth. He wasted those gifts and then suffered the consequences of his actions. He was hungry and homeless, and he eventually came to realize what he had lost. He returned home contrite and humiliated, willing to work as his father’s lowliest servant, no longer deserving of his inheritance. Through his suffering, he became humble and acquired a deeply grateful heart.

The older son is caught in a skewed version of reality. He believes that he needs to earn his father’s approval and love. Because he identifies himself as the “good son,” he thinks that he is more deserving of his inheritance than his brother. However, his sin is that he does not feel gratitude for everything he already has. He is blind to his father’s generous love. His miserly mind is stuck on the pettiness of keeping track. He only feels entitlement. If one truly has a grateful heart, one could never feel resentment toward another’s good fortune.

How many of us look down upon the addict with resentment? What are the things that we feel entitled to? A picture-perfect life? Children who excel at school, are successful in college, and go on to achieve their own perfect lives? Why should we be entitled to any of that?

Are some of our other children resentful when their addicted sibling goes into recovery and is welcomed home with open arms? Do they still obsess about past harms caused by the sibling in addiction and feel that justice has not been served? Do they feel that all the years of them being the “good one” have not been adequately acknowledged and rewarded? Unfortunately, we as parents cannot fix our children, neither their addictions nor their misguided attitudes.

When we go through life with a sense of entitlement, we can never truly be happy because we are constantly comparing our lives to some arbitrary standard. We hinge our satisfaction and happiness on expectations. “If only the addict would stop using.” “If only my daughter would get her act together.” “If only my son could hold on to a job.” If only, if only, if only . . .

In order to escape this spiral of dissatisfaction, we need to turn to a cornerstone of the Twelve Steps, the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I need to accept the unchangeable: My child has the disease of addiction. I cannot control it or my child. I cannot cure it.

 “Courage to change the things I can.” I can change my outlook and feel gratitude for the many unearned gifts in my life: I woke up this morning. I grew up in a country where girls can get an education. I enjoy clean running water and electricity. My family does not go hungry. My child is alive.  

When we are grateful, everything is a gift. We notice the blessings all around us. We can be happy again.

Let us not go through life as do-gooders with sourpuss hearts. Let us live joyfully with grateful hearts.

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Nancy Downing

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Nancy, for this extraordinary look at the parable of the prodigal son. You have made me very aware of the resentment I carry toward my addicted son, which until this point I have been unwilling to admit to. If I piled all the “if only he woulds” on top of each other they would probably be the tallest structure in the world. I thought I had fully accepted his addiction, but your article hit home in helping me realize that only I can change my attitudes, see his disease with compassion, and let go of unreal expectations. Many thanks and blessings to you.


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