Letter to a Young Graduate

by Mark Yaconelli

Dear David,

When I think of you getting out of high school I think of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15).  In this parable from Jesus, the younger son goes to his father and says, “Give me my inheritance.”  In my perspective, the younger brother wants his inheritance not because he’s greedy or shallow or disrespectful but because he’s dying inside.  He wants the inheritance because the light in his soul is going out, because life at home is dampening his spirit, because something in him tells him that there’s more.  More!  So the younger son tells his Dad, “I’ve got to get out of here.  I need to see if there’s more to life than being a good…”  And the father (who is supposed to represent God) says, “Sounds like a great idea.  You’re making a great move.  Any time you want to go and seek life, I’m all for it.  Here’s your money.  Go with my blessing.  Seek and you shall find.”

So off the young son goes with his dad’s blessing and for the first time in a long time he feels alive.  He feels free and full of possibility.  He’s finally following this burning in his chest.  He’s following this desire (a desire that he doesn’t quite understand) to see what life really has to offer.

How does the prodigal seek real, heartfelt life?  He tries love.  He tries sex.  He tries money.  He tries stimulants.  He tries escapism.  He tries partying with new friends.  He tries everything he can think of.  “Seek and you shall find”– this kid scrounges through everything he can find and it turns out none of it works.  The money runs out and he has to change course.  He tries work and groveling and poverty and suffering and hanging out with pigs, but none of this seems to fulfill that burning in the chest either.  Finally, he comes to the end of his seeking and realizes that everything he was looking for he already had, he just couldn’t see it, couldn’t hear it, couldn’t feel or understand it.  So he goes back home, changed, open, more receptive to what he had all along.

So here’s my word to you David: Seek until you can’t seek any more.  Seek until you come to the end of your seeking.  Search and question and test and knock and try stuff until you discover every true and good thing that’s in you and in the world.  The real question for the prodigal son, and the real question for each of us is, “How do you shake loose the grace and love that is buried within?”  Or more simply, “How do you find your way home?”  (Because believe me, we’re all searching for a home…some place of acceptance and friendship and care and safety where our gifts can bloom).

Of course, there are all kinds of answers to this question.  You look for clues.  You test yourself.  You try study and see where that gets you.  You take odd jobs.  You stalk people you admire and make them answer your questions.  You notice what makes your heart race, and see where it leads.  Maybe you allow yourself to sink down into depression and see what it might teach you, or allow yourself to fall head over heels in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.  You try heartbreak and then you go on.  You play guitar.  You talk to strangers.  You try and fix your own car.  You befriend nuns.  You read trashy novels.  You read great literature.  You keep track of your thoughts in a journal.  You stay up watching television.  You walk through museums.  You paint your television screen black.  You spend a month in silence.  You go backpacking with friends.  You hang out in country-western bars.   You drive the West Coast (in a car that runs on bio-diesel).

You read poetry.  You write poetry.  You try and form a bluegrass band.  You stay up all night in a truck stop drinking coffee with a homeless woman.  You light a candle next to your bed and plead with God to show you the way.  You tour Jerusalem.  You go to church.  You go to lots of churches.  You walk out of church each time you realize that everyone’s pretending.   You read the Bible—especially the strange parts like Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon.  You go to an opera.  You let yourself weep uncontrollably, without knowing why.

You look at old buildings.  You get a job working drive-thru at McDonalds.  You give a year as a volunteer in Central America.  You chain yourself to gates of the White House.  You grow tomatoes.  You push and challenge every teacher, every campus minister, every spiritual guru to see if they know anything—anything truthful, anything real, anything that makes sense of the children who get their hands cut off in Sudan, anything that explains why the sixteen year-old Palestinian girl straps a bomb to her waist and scatters her flesh all over a market square.

In the 1960s, Abraham Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and holocaust survivor was asked if he had a word for the youth of America, here’s what he said, “Live your life like it’s a work of art.” I like that.  So live your life like it’s a novel.  Pay attention when you’re getting bored with the main character.  Don’t be afraid to walk out on your own movie.  When it gets stifling create a new plot line.  Quit your job.  Leave school.  Ask the girl across the hall to elope.  Fast for three days in the desert.  Try to be a saint.  Volunteer to care for meth babies.  Learn to tango.  In other words let life loose in you.  Free the Jesus who remains trapped within your heart (and mine)…let him walk around within you.  Let him sit among those places in you that cause you to feel stuck or ashamed.  Watch as he sits in those places and feels comfortable.  Watch how he talks to those parts of you that are so deeply fearful.  Notice that he’s not afraid of anything within you?  See how he not only accepts but actually sees the good in those parts of you (and me) that make you so uncomfortable?  See how he befriends them?  Don’t recoil.  Just watch.  And then notice that somehow, through and in spite of your efforts, you’re being set free.

Then you may be surprised to notice that like Jesus, you too have the power to befriend all that is hidden in the world—the drunk, the abuser, the A student who tortures himself with visions of perfection.  Notice that you actually have the capacity to sit with anyone–everyone who feels ugly and unwanted.  Notice that you actually like sitting down and talking with these undesirables.  Notice that you can share a Coke with these folks and that somehow, somewhere within you, you’re coming to life.  Your novel is becoming rich and complex.  You’re living.  You’re keeping the walls of your heart soft and pliable.  You’re capable of receiving love from people.  You’re capable of trusting and receiving love from God.  You have the capacity, in the middle of a workday, to walk outside and enjoy the breeze and the spring blossoms and the dandelions growing up through the pavement.

Let this be the start of a great work of art, David.  Live something beautiful.  Live the life you’ve admired in others.  Live the life that you’d be proud to live, because believe me, there’s enough people playing it safe.  Go out and try and then fail and try and fail and then forgive yourself (or receive God’s forgiveness) and then try a different angle.  Go out in the glacier waters, out in the churning river, out where the middle-aged men sit taunting you to stay back on the shore.  Go out into that river and sit and wait and trust and then you’ll see.  There’s real strength in you, David.  There’s real hope in you, too.  You carry a kind of humor, and compassion and lightness of spirit that can warm even the most frigid of rivers.  I’ve seen it.  And it makes me feel good to know you’re out there in the world.

Mark Yaconelli is the co-founder and co-director of Triptykos School of Compassion. His latest book is Wonder, Fear and Longing: A Book of Prayers. [Read an interview here.] He is also the author of Downtime, Contemplative Youth Ministry, and Growing Souls. Mark lives in Oregon with his wife and three children.

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