Out of the Pigpen
In my work as a chaplain, I have met many people who could not get out of the pigpen. At Universalist Recovery Church, we’ve explored the parable of the prodigal son a number of times, using it to understand forgiveness, restorative justice, the importance of play, and most recently, the power of having a voice. Today we look at what it takes to wake up, get out of the pig sty, and create beloved community.
As you may recall, in the parable of the prodigal son, the younger brother, after wasting his entire inheritance, accepts work tending pigs. He sleeps with them and eats what he can snatch from beneath their mouths.
One day, he wakes up and realizes he has a home to go to. He doesn’t need to stay there. So he leaves. He was fortunate. Not everyone has such an awakening. Unlike him, some people die among the slops and the straw. What makes the difference?
Why Do We Awaken?
We don’t really know. Is it one’s childhood? Genetics? The influence of God, the kindness of strangers, the random touch, word, or observation? I suspect the answer is, “All of the above.” Whether we live or die has a lot to do with a complex conglomeration of situations and events, some of which we can’t control.
A few years ago, I wrote about being saved from a pit of my own by an angel who bought me coffee at Pennsylvania Station. His appearance in my life was nothing I made happen, but because of the affirmation and support he offered me, I was able to change.
This and other experiences invite me to try to be that kind of angel for others. Sometimes all I can do is love them while they kill themselves with bad habits of one kind or another. Maybe depression grips them too tightly for anyone to pull them away. Sometimes addicts manage to stop abusing their substances, but the damage they’ve done to their bodies or their minds is not reversible, and they end up dying from their disease. Even if they never get better physically, most of them are grateful to have crawled out of the pen and staggered home, even if for a short while.
Making It Home Only to Relapse
Getting home, however, is not a guarantee. Even the strongest, most successful person can relapse. This is true no matter the disease, whether diabetes, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder, addiction. People go off their diets, they become lax with their medications, they drink “just one” beer.
Even those who experience the touch of God in their hearts or reach enlightenment find they must live in the temporal world, inside their bodies. One’s mundane life continues. The memory of our transportation to a mystical realm can sustain us for a while. With practice and prayer, we can remain open to the magic of the unknown. Still, we never lose the personality attached to this current version of our self. We can’t guarantee we will stay sober, sane, or inspired.
Life Goes On
In Turtles All the Way Down, Aza, the main character, has an anxiety disorder that sweeps her up in ever-tightening spirals of fear.  Mostly, she worries about dying from C-Diff, a bacterial disease sometimes contracted in hospitals or when one has taken antibiotics. Aza’s anxiety is so intense, she can’t bear to kiss the boy she loves, so their relationship dissolves. With time and struggle, however, she learns that life goes on. Life goes on, and she is able to marry and have children, work and play, and enjoy a normal life.
In the background, though, her anxiety remains. At times, her fear overwhelms her, even as she matures, but the older she gets, the less intense is her panic and the sooner it passes. Though our problems follow us until we die, if we can wake up, we may find they trouble us less. We stop trying to control them. We and our anxieties develop a kind of truce.
Trapped in the Pigpen
Not long ago, one of my beloved patients decided to die.  Not literally, and probably not consciously, but because he needed medical care for an illness that could kill him, when he disappeared from his room and didn’t come back, he put his life at risk. Who knows what drove him? He’d been in the hospital for weeks, a young man used to wandering the streets at will, sleeping where he lay. For fifteen years, he’d lived outside. Buildings made him feel claustrophobic. A vagabond, a petty thief, and a drunk, he was one of those throw-away people that society judges and passersby ignore.
Trapped in the proverbial pigpen, he saw no way out. Indeed, he wasn’t certain he wanted to get out. His addiction kept him warm and oblivious. The idea of living inside, following someone else’s rules, having to earn money, frightened him. Other than a few summer gigs as a teenager, he’d never had a job. He didn’t think he could do it. He sure didn’t know how, and he had no history to help him imagine such a life.
You could say he brought his predicament on himself. He grew up in an addictive household, but it wasn’t horribly abusive, nor was he neglected. His high school career was typical of bored young men, until he joined the drug-using crowd. Had his mother known, and had she had the power, she would have kept him from those other boys, but she didn’t and she hadn’t, so the young man followed a path that seemed fun and easy. Some might say he was sinful, stupid, or lazy.
Recognizing Our Strengths
But surviving on city streets is challenging. It takes wit, creativity, and courage. While it’s easy to chastise the addict and the thief for betraying our expectations, to do so ignores the fact that the playing field is not level. If we are successful as judged by society’s standards, we want to believe we got there by ourselves, but that is a fallacy. We control far less of our lives than we like to think. Without angels to guide and help us, we, too, might be living outside.
Still, we devalue the homeless person or the addicted one. In the case of our beloved patient, for instance, if we don’t look closely at who he really is, we will miss his concern for animals or children or his willingness to share what little he has to help someone in greater need. His gruffness and dirtiness scare us. We dismiss his street smarts as irrelevant because they don’t translate well to the workplace or the dinner table. If we look carefully, though, we can see the compassion in his heart and the tenderness beneath his bravado. We can recognize his wisdom.
Acknowledging Our Foolishness
Unfortunately, along with being wise, he could be foolish, ruled by his cravings and impulses. While in the hospital, he was sober. Mostly. At least once, he slipped off and stole a beer from a local store. It soothed his anxiety. In his more open moments, he talked about his ambivalence, his fear of living this new kind of life, his concern that he would never make it, never be accepted, never find his way home to place where he was welcomed and loved.
On other days, he swore to his good intentions. He had hope. I suspect that at the time, he meant what he said about getting sober. Just because he lost that determination an hour or a day later doesn’t mean he was lying. Maybe he saw someone he knew, was overwhelmed with memory because of a sound or smell, had a sensation or a thought that disturbed him. Almost anything can start the cycle again, sweeping us up in that ever-tightening spiral, the one that drags us down and down and down until we find ourselves flat on our backs in the mud, the fence of the pigpen looming over us.
Cravings and Longings
Not that the young man was alone in struggle to stay clean and sober. His mother was talking to him again, and his brother had visited. Staff were rooting for him. We wanted him to get sober, find an apartment, learn to work. That was how we imagined he could get out of his misery.
A social worker got him hooked up with a residential treatment center where he could stay for months, giving him time to heal not just his body, but also his heart. His brain would start functioning again and he would learn to appreciate sobriety. It does happen that way at times. Surely this would be one of those. After all, the young man was sick. He understood that if he didn’t stop using drugs and drinking, he’d end up dying. He insisted he didn’t want to die. But when cravings overwhelm us, we don’t always see past the possibility of relief.
Besides, to change one’s life so dramatically means changing one’s self. Not only would the patient have to give up the drugs that comforted him, but he would have to become part of a community where people kept schedules and expected obedience and dependability. It had been so long since he’d lived with his family that he had forgotten what that was like. All he could see was that he would have to give up his freedom if he wanted to survive.
The prodigal son is a little like our young man. When he came of age, he took his inheritance and squandered it. We don’t know on what, though we can imagine he used drugs, drank, gambled. It seems he lived an untamed life, following his whims, catering to his desires. Perhaps he traveled the countryside, sleeping under the stars, stealing fruit from the fields he passed, seducing girls, breaking every commandment. Not until the money was gone, did he realize he’d been a fool.
Many of the addicts I’ve met felt like a fool. Maybe our young man did, as well. He never said as much, but it can be hard to admit our shame. But sometimes shame is what motivates us to wake up.
That’s what got the prodigal son to think twice about his life. A good Jewish boy does not expect to find himself sleeping with pigs. Besides, he’d grown up in a house, with land, plentiful food, a comfortable bed.
“My father’s servants live better than this,” he told himself. In that moment, he realized he could go home.
Like his biblical counterpart, the patient had grown up with a family, eating three meals a day and sleeping under a roof. He had seen his brother marry, get a job, and have children. Such a life was possible for him, and maybe on some level he wanted it. But somehow, he couldn’t believe he could have it. After all, his mother would not take him back.
Still, something made him decide to go to the hospital in the first place, then accept help getting into treatment. The day I met him, he said his illness was a “wake-up call.” He was sick and miserable. If he wanted to survive, he couldn’t keep living outside. At least then, he was ready to go home.
Though the prodigal son wasn’t sick, he was miserable. When he opened his eyes and saw the filth he slept in and the scraps he gnawed on, he remembered who he was. It can be that easy, this moment of awakening, when we become aware of the suffering of our lives. Such a simple moment can make all the difference.
I’ve also heard from those who turned their lives around because they experienced magical and mystical experiences, felt touched by the universe, angels, God. Often, we need another human to remind us of our true nature, like I did when I was teenager wandering around Pennsylvania Station.
Whether it’s a human, a God, a filthy and uncomfortable bed, or a memory, we need something to startle us awake.
Barriers to Waking Up
Not everyone is blessed with such a startling moment. Not everyone wakes up. There is a lot of greed, cruelty, and evil in the world, and it is very strong. Systems everywhere conspire against those who would demand privileges, even rights, for the poor and vulnerable. Some people are so damaged by the weight of oppression, fear, and torment they dare not open their eyes for fear of what they would see. For some, oblivion is their only escape.
Yet there are many ways to go home. If we can’t change the circumstances of our lives, maybe we can change our hearts. Those of us privileged enough to know comfort, stability, and compassion, might think it is easy to return home, but it is not always. We have no right to expect awakening of anyone, nor judge them if they continue to sleep.
I don’t know what the young man was thinking when he left the hospital that day. Even if I’d had the opportunity to talk with him beforehand, there’s no guarantee he would have told me what he felt or thought or knew. If he did know. So often, we act without understanding our reasons, fearful of the truth we might find within ourselves.
We staff members did what we could to open the gate in the fence of his pigpen. At some point, he might even yet walk through it. Just because he did not follow our plans for him doesn’t mean our efforts were meaningless. Simply knowing someone cares can make a huge difference. In the future, the memory of that caring might be the nudge that opens his eyes. It might one day remind him of who he really is, a soul meant to live in beloved community.
Awakening Out of Our Pain
Beloved community is, after all, the point. We are on this earth not to hate one another, not to fight or argue or steal or destroy. Every religion proclaims that deep within us is a sacred spark that longs to unite with the holy. Our task is to find that spark and let it shine. We wake from the pigpen because we are the divine on’es children. It may sometimes be suffering that wakes us, but we are not here to be miserable.
In the Bible, we read, “Blessed is the one whom God corrects, so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” (Job 5:17 NIV). We might not like the hard times of our lives, but they can lead us to blessings.
This is not an excuse for us to purposely create challenges for friends or loved ones. To set reasonable boundaries or limits, to respect our needs and protect ourselves makes sense. If we love ourselves, we won’t let others abuse us or take advantage of us. Therefore, we may refuse to help those who insist on sleeping in the pigpen.
Yet when we pretend we are doing so for their good, we risk lapsing into self-righteousness, relieving pent-up frustrations, rejecting those we dislike, or rationalizing our own meanness. It is hubris to think we know what another person needs. Life creates challenges enough all on its own. We don’t need to add to anyone’s misery.
Our Task Is to Love
The person lying in the mud needs, not toughness, but love. If care for others with clarity and concern for all parties, including ourselves and society, love will not fail. When we love others, we invite them to believe in themselves. We give them courage and hope.
I have heard many stories of people and animals and gods who touched the miserable and broken and showed them the way to go, the path out of their predicament. At the same time, they revealed the way in.
Unless we wake up not only to the misery of the straw and the slops, but also to the magnificence of our true self, our journey will falter. What keeps us awake after we first open our eyes is the belief that we matter, that in spite of all our shame, our pettiness and ugliness, a spark of divinity exists within us, and we deserve to be welcomed home.
Waking Up to Beloved Community
There are many ways to sleep. Addiction is one. But we also sleep when we forget we are here to love, when we point fingers or blame others or choose sides, when we believe we have the one right answer. Our task is not to make things worse with the idea this will force others out of the pen, but to invite everyone into community, relationship, reparation, wholeness.
The gentle touch, the compassionate voice, the tender reminder of who we are at our core will do more to wake us than any chastisement or bludgeoning. If we want to build beloved community, we must love one another. There is no other way.
In faith and fondness,
- Green, John, Turtles All the Way Down, New York: Listening Library, 2017.
- Though based loosely on a recent patient, this story is a melding of a number of addicts I have known and does not accurately represent any one of them. In that way, it is fictional, but true.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved