Friday, April 12, 2013

The Father and The Son: A Parable With Five Movements

Part I: How Long? How Far?

A father and son were ascending a treacherous mountain path by way of a skinny gravel trail. A jagged rock face, adorned only with cudzoo, stood sternly to their left. Westward, to their right, stood nothing: only empty air, light and chaotic, adorned with grey clouds. Southward, beneath the chaos and the clouds, was Green River Canyon; the canyon was shrouded with thick waves of darkness; each wave warned of a steep drop into deep depths. 

After 15 minutes of hiking, the boy protested, "How much farther, Father? How long did you say this trail was?"

"I didn't," answered his father.
"Oh. Well, how long is it?" asked the boy.
The father stepped more quickly, and answered, "How long is it? Only as long as it is."
"What does that mean?" asked the boy, hoping for something measurable by miles; though, he remembered, right then, he had no concept of what a mile really was.
"It means," replied the father, "this trail will never be longer, or shorter than it is. It will certainly not get shorter by complaining."
The boy responded, huffing with frustration, "I just want to find out how long it is  how many miles, or feet, or millimeters."

The father slowed, and spoke more carefully, more kindly, "There's only one way for you to find out how long the trail is, and that's to keep cheerful, and keep walking. The trail cannot be hiked by thinking about miles, or adding and subtracting miles; it can only hiked by hiking miles. You will know how long it is when you come to the end. If I told you how many miles long it was, you'd think it was very long, or maybe very short, and you'd be wrong. It is not so many miles long  at least not for you. For you, it is a step long; each step gets you closer to the end, and when you come to the end, the and only then, will you know how long it is."

The boy huffed, and exhaled. His face turned to stone. He looked up to the mountain, and away from his father. The father turned to gage his son's mood; the boy looked purposefully away, toward the heavens, at a flock of geese that weren't there. The father waved his hand above the boys head, but the boy looked still away, affecting as much distance as is possible from a person right in front of you. He stared ahead into empty space, parsing the cool air with his eyes, straining to pick out a molecule, but still ignoring his father.

Then, the boy said, to the mountain, and the geese, and the cool air  but not to his father  "I just want to know how far it is to the top! How far?!"

The father knelt in front of his son, and spoke  not to the mountain, or the geese, or the cool air, or any other creature  he spoke directly to his son, "How long is it? As long as it is, and no further. That is your comfort, son. The trail will not get longer while we hike it. The mountain will not get higher."

"Umm hmm," said the boy, and stomped down, as an act of petty vengeance, on the mountain of which his father spoke. He was half-surprised that the mountain beneath him didn't give way, or at least tremble.

The father continued, and his voice turned stern and strong and immovable, like the mountain beneath the boy's feet, "And, this, Son, is your rebuke: the trail will not get shorter while we hike it, either. The sooner you hike it, the sooner you will come to the end; when you come to the end, then and only then, you will know how long it is."

Still unsatisfied, and feeling a blister coming on his left big toe, the boy decided on a more subtle approach.

He said, in his meekest, most curious, voice, "OK. Don't tell me how long it is in miles. That's fine. At least, tell me how long it is minutes. How many minutes? Or, um, hours?"

His father responded with suppressed chuckles, and finally, when he could bear it no more, deep rolling laughter. The mountain then shook, or so it seemed to the boy. 

As he doubled his pace, the Father proclaimed, ""How long? Only as long as it takes you to hike it.  Not one second more  not one second less."

Part II: The Escape From The Desperate Escape

The boy didn't care for hiking; he didn't see the point of walking somewhere that led to nowhere he wanted to be. Besides, it was hot, and he wanted to go swimming. There, to his right, off the trail, over the edge, and beneath the clouds, was Green River Canyon  the very thought seemed a heaven to deliver him from the trial of this trail. The canyon promised all a boy desired: a quiet green river, not so deep as to be dangerous, but deep enough to swim; chartered canoe rides; camp sites with fresh fires, and smores; fishing holes, with eager fish flying to meet each hook. That's where his mother and sister were; that's where he wanted to be. His face turned green as he thought of his little sister splashing lazily in the green water of Green River Canyon while he struggled thirsty and hot up a big hill.
That morning, he had seen a brochure for Green River Canyon Park. He'd read the words, "Come and splash away a day! Canoes! Swimming! Fishing! Grilling!" The promise of such a place made the boy want to jump the trail, and roll right down the mountain into the water below. He considered slowly falling farther and farther behind his father until, suddenly out of sight, he'd make a getaway. He saw himself jumping the trail, rollicking down the mountain, and flopping headlong into cool waters. Surely it wouldn't be hard to find his mother once he made it to the bottom. Surely, his father would understand. He plotted his escape.

Just then, the boy took a longing look into the canyon. It dawned on him, in an instant, that something was missing. Until then, he'd barely looked over the edge of the trail. His imagination had been seeing for him  but, when he actually looked, with his eyes, and not his imagination, he saw only darkness below. Not at all what he expected. He wiped his eyes, and looked again. He looked, and looked into Green River Canyon, but he saw no green, and no river. The canyon was painted, for miles, as far as he could tell, in black, and only black. In his imagination, he'd heard boys and girls yelping with delight as they splashed and played, and all against the backdrop of a cheerfully roaring river — but, when he actually inclined his ear, and listened, he was disturbed to find: nothing, a void of sound. He couldn't detect even the crackling of a stream, much less the roar of a river.

The bottom of the canyon lay in darkness, only darkness: at first, a darkness not dangerous, only mysterious: the kind of darkness, because unknown, that beckons, with hidden treasure. He found this darkness coolly inviting: canoes! fire! flying fish! fun! and smores! The boy tried to see past the darkness, beyond it  but, the more he really looked, the more he saw only darkness: no light, no fires, not as much a flickering flame  only darkness, and beneath the darkness, darkness, and behind and beyond and below the darkness, darkness: darkness, striking not only the vision, but also the affections. All he saw, as far as he saw, was emptiness, with darkness full. This was a darkness full with promises, yes, but these promises were unfulfilled to his boyish eyes. He believed his eyes. At once, like a man shaking off dust, he shook off his plan of running away.

Green River Canyon was a lie he had told himself a minute before; a lie he now utterly rejected. He felt, in that moment, as much as any boy can feel it, the presence of evil. 

Grasping for some light on the darkness down there, he called out to his Father, "What's down there dad? Are mom and Alice down there?"

His father peered over the edge, "Down there? I don't know, son. As for mom and Alice, they're a long way east of here, on the other side of the county, 25 miles at least, in the Park. Down there? Nobody is down there." 

"I thought Mom and Alice were in Green River Canyon," the boy whispered.

"No," the father said, stopping to take a good look at the darkness beneath him, and feeling  as much as any man can feel it  the presence of evil. This evil he did not understand, but he felt it close, and dangerous: a close danger just barely, in the nick of time, escaped. The father wiped his brow, and sighed, like a man who'd just felt a bullet graze his face.

The father looked on his small son, and saw in his eyes a similar reckoning. At once, an understanding passed between father and son: the son's whole desperate escape was written on his face, and then, the son's repentance. This surprised the father. He had not reckoned his son a creature capable of being perplexed, or ensnared, by such dark places. He'd hoped to protect him from evils without, to preserve his innocence, and he had. But what of the evils within?

"No," the father went on, "they are in Green River Canyon Park."

The boy gulped, and thanked the heavens he hadn't followed through with his desperate escape; he had escaped, just barely, from his desperate escape.

Part III: Fear and Tears

The father marched boldly upward, always 3 steps in front of his son  never more, never less  with long, quick, slow, sure, strides. He stepped confidently, but carefully and wisely, and only on solid ground; every step was planned, to the millimeter, based on the intelligence his eyes provided his feet.

His boy hustled behind him, anxiously, kicking up dust with frantic churning strides. More than once he wanted to ask his father to slow down  but he never did. His father was a man, a real man  the kind of man he wanted to be  the kind of man who did not complain  the kind of man to go on despite hardship. So, partly from shame, partly from love, the boy trudged on, always 3 steps behind his father  3 steps, never more, never less  with short, shaky, fearful strides.

They had been hiking for an hour when they came to a section of rock face jutting out above the trail. The father knelt beneath the rock, and crawled under it. Then, for the first time that day, he disappeared out of his son's sight. He was still  the boy knew deep down, in a place deeper than the canyon  3 steps close  but this truth was drown in a flurry of fears. All at once, all the fears of that day, and all days, past and future, seized the boy. He was afraid of being alone; he was afraid of falling; he was afraid of getting lost; he was afraid of taking a disastrous wrong turn; he was afraid of disappointing his father  but, more than anything, and more than all his fears combined  he was afraid of losing his father. The boy's heart shattered, and all reason left him for a moment. The world turned grey and colorless and chaotic and dreadful. Father was gone! Gone! Weighty tears came to the boy's large grey eyes, and rolled in silent scores drowsily down his dirty face.

"Son? Son!" his father said.
"Daddy! Daddy!" the boy answered.
"What's wrong?" the father asked, sensing  in a place deeper than the canyon  every single one of his son's fears, and feeling  in a place deeper than the canyon  every one of his son's tears.
"N... N... nothing," the boy said, wiping his face in an effort to clean himself up before his father saw him.
The father replied, with grave care, "What is wrong son?"

These words rang with severity, but also kindness. They rang with united power, but a dizzying diversity of qualities: qualities incompatible in a little boy's mind: rebuke, but also comfort; courage, but also fear; understanding, but also confusion; grief, but also joy; life, but also   and this took the boy's breath  death.

The words rang out across the 3 steps between father and son, then bounced across the rock face, down into the canyon, back up the canyon walls, and into the chaotic empty space until, at last, they dropped, still ringing, in the boy's ears. As they rang, they brought order, and clarity, and color back into the little boys world. The picture around and above the boy changed as these words dove down into the canyon of his heart. A picture is worth a thousand words, but these words had power to change a thousand pictures  to change, even, the sweeping picture of a life  this boy's life. And they did.

"What is wrong?" the words echoed in the canyon of the boy's heart, with creative expectation, with longing insistent  longing bordering on demanding  demand to be heard. They echoed as a question, but also as an answer. 

"What is wrong son?"

And the boy knew: his father was not disappointed by the truth of his tears, but the suppressing of the truth: disappointed, not by truth, but the lie. His father was not disappointed by his son's fear of loneliness, or falling, or or failing, or being lost. Rather, he was disappointed that his son feared disappointing him.

"I'm scared," the boy said  and when he'd said it, he was no longer scared.

Then, the boy broke, joyfully, into the tears he had suppressed. The tears came as remnants of old, unfamiliar, feelings: like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The tears came, not from fear, but fearlessness: not from the dread of disappointing, but rather the assurance of, fatherly love. 

As the years unrolled in this boys life, he was followed by these words. And he followed these words. He never forgot them; even in old age, after he had lost everything he treasured in this world, even then, these words were fresh and alive and weighty as gold, "What is wrong, son?" Sometimes the words came as a rebuke when his hand was about to touch something unclean; sometimes, as comfort, when his heart was low  but they always came, like the visits of a faithful friend, and they always said exactly what he needed to hear. The boy's life changed; the words never changed, but they grew. They grew into every corner of his life, "What is wrong, son?" These words echoed.

They echoed, then, and over the rolling years, assuring the boy it was fine to weep; they echoed, then, and over the rolling years, as a reminder that he must not weep forever. The echoed, 31 years later, long after the boy became a man, on the day he lost his wife to a drunk driver. They echoed 42 years later, when the boy, now an old man, lost his vision to a stroke. They echoed throughout the boy's life, and even on his death bed, when he repeated the exact same words, with the exact same cadence, to his own son. They echoed when the boy, now an old man, breathed his last. And then, in eternity, they echoed still.

Part IV: Footsteps

The higher they went, the skinnier the trail, the deadlier the fall. Near the middle of the mountain, after two hours of hard hiking, the father fell to daydreaming. In what was his one and only thoughtless second of the day, he lost sight of the path beneath him, and placed his right foot on a loose rock. The rock slipped suddenly from under him. As it did, gravity took hold of his body with a kindly, almost gentle, violence. The father fell backward, and levitated for a moment over the canyon deeps; he peered as far as he could into the depths below, but he only saw darkness, and after the darkness, more darkness. There, suspended, he saw his feet, off the ground, far away from his body, like they were someone else's feet. Gravity was calling him, pulling him, enticing him into the deeps; this call he did not heed. Instead, with a gesture akin to a man taking a ladies hand, he reach forth, and clung to the rock face to his left. He braced himself. His hand, still powerful and quick from his days as an amateur boxer, twisted his whole body in mid air, like it was a loose door knob, and set his wayward feet back on solid ground. The father was surprised by his own strength, and looked down at his hand curiously like it was someone else's hand.

The son, just three steps behind, stepped on the same rock, and flew up into the same light air; he also reached out for the rock face — but his hands were too small to get a hold. He went tumbling forward into the deeps. He was surprised, as he fell  not by his fall  but by how easy it was  so much easier than the labor of hiking. And this was a lesson that stood by him his life long. He surmised, then and always, the easy way is not the good way.

The boy flailed like a madman: reaching, struggling, fighting, kicking the air, and cursing the darkness below.

At the last second, with nothing but a red shoe in sight, the father reached over the edge, and grabbed the boy by his shoelaces with the same strong hand that had, moment's before, brought him back to life. He swung his son up, up, up, like it was a game, and rolled him into his arms, gripping him tightly, like a found treasure. As he pulled his son closer  there was no such thing as close enough right then  he was surprised by how little the boy weighed, how weak the boy seemed. The child was smaller and frailer than he'd imagined. 

"I love you," he said, and the boy marveled.

Had his Father ever said this to him before? Maybe. He couldn't remember. He knew for sure, his father had never said these words like this.

The loose rock careened down the mountain, and into the abyss. They never heard it hit bottom.

Frustrated, the father yelled at his son, "Be careful!" 
"You be careful!" the son answered, eyes wild and wide, while looking into the darkness, and quaking with fear.
"Me?" said the father.
"Yes, you," answered the son, "I am, after all, walking in your footsteps. You are taller than me, and bigger than me, and I can't see past you  but I can see your footsteps, and I plant my feet in them. So, you be careful. I step wherever you step."

Part V: The End Of The Trail

The father and son reached the top of the mountain 4 minutes and (by the boy's count) 128 steps later. 

The boy gazed, for a long time, back down at the trail they'd just hiked. 

"How far did we hike? How long did it take us?" the boy said, absently, excitedly.

The father smiled and waited for his son to answer his own question

The boy hopped with glee, and exclaimed, "How far? How long? To the end of the trail  no matter how long, or how far!"

Then, as a victory celebration, he lifted his fist, punched a whole in the empty air, and shouted, "I did it!" He paused, feeling his victory was incomplete. Then, he jumped into his father's arms, shaking with joy, and yelled, "No... we did it!"

The father and son walked over the edge of the trail and stood on the highest peak of the mountain. They looked then upon a sunset which the boy tried many times in after years, with not much success, to put into writing. His own words always failed him, but there were some other words that always came to mind, as the perfect description of that day, and that sunset:

Darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved
upon the face of the waters.
And God said, "Let there be light,"
and there was light.
And God saw the light,
that it was good.

As they gazed over a measureless horizon lit yellow and orange by the setting sun, their eyes were bottomless  like wells fitted to store beauty. The beauty of all things flooded their vision in ceaseless waves, and they were surprised to find, after each wave, the capacity for another, and another, and another. The Sun beamed on the father; the father beamed on the son. The son wanted to say something, but checked himself. He was hushed, at first, by the solemness of the beauty, and finally, by the overwhelming kindness of the beauty. The world appeared to him a bright shiny gift, a continual Christmas. The idea that he had once thought of turning back, hopping the trail  the idea that he might have missed this moment  made him cherish it all the more, and at the same time, feel unworthy of it. His former plan of escape now appeared to him as the worst idea of his whole life. And he realized, it didn't have to be this way. Any boy in all the world could be standing right there right then, and yet he was. He was special, not in that he deserved so much, but in that he deserved so little, and received so much.

The father finally broke the silence. He asked, "What can you see, son?" 

The boy answered, "Everything."

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