do justice. love kindness. live prudently.

The Parable of Max the Bear

I have been reading and thinking a lot lately about work and faith. More will eventually be forthcoming on the blog (I hope). But, in the meantime, here is a little parable on the subject that I wrote several years ago on another blog. I should stress that this story is not strictly autobiographical, though parts of my story can be found in it. It is, instead, a composite of the stories of many people I've known. It is also, as you will see, a parable without an ending, and I am curious to know…how do you think it should end?


Once upon a time, there was a black bear cub named Max. Max lived at home with his mother and father and had a perfectly happy childhood, except for a lawsuit over an incident involving some porridge and a few items of broken furniture, which the family never talks about anymore.

More than anything else, Max wanted to grow up to be just like his Papa Bear. Papa Bear was a great, strong bear with a mighty growl, but he was also gentle and kind with just about everyone he met. Max loved to play golf with Papa Bear. He and Papa Bear went golfing just about every weekend, even when it snowed.

When Max was sort-of grown up, old enough that he wasn’t still a bear cub, but not yet as big as Papa Bear, Max decided to go to bear business school. At bear business school, a studious polar bear named Professor Smythe, who wore glasses with round rims and spoke with a European accent, taught Max everything he knew about the bear business world. Max learned to use big words like “fiduciary” and “margin” and “leverage” and – when he graduated – he thought that he had become just about the smartest, most business-savvy bear ever.

While Max was in business school, he also met Sally. Sally was a cute grey bear with a pink bow in her head and big, black eyes. After he finished bear business school, Max and Sally were married. Max decided that, after he got a good job in the bear business world, he and Sally would move into a big cave by the lake, where he would play golf three times a week, and spend the weekends snuggling with Sally.

It took Max longer than he thought it would to find a job. Many of his potential employers, it seemed, didn’t understand how business savvy Max had become in bear business school, probably because they had never met Professor Smythe. Then, one day, Max finally took a job at a big corporation where he was assigned to work on the bottom tier of an eighteen-layered organizational chart. The money for the new job was less than Max wanted, and he and Sally would have to live a few miles away from the lake for now in a smaller cave, which was probably still more expensive than they could afford, but that would be okay because once everyone heard him use words like “leverage” and “fiduciary”, he would be immediately promoted to a higher organizational tier, much more befitting of his vast knowledge.

On the first day of work, Max met a co-worker named Helga the HR Fairy. Helga took Max to his office, which turned out to be a steel cage about one foot square. She explained to him that he would be let out of his office about twice a day to go do his job, which was to gather useful refuse out of a local garbage dump.

Max had no idea that his job would require him to think about, touch, and gather garbage all day. Professor Smythe, it seemed, had failed to mention that such less-than-satisfying jobs existed. Worse yet, Max protested, as a near-grown Bear there was no way he would be able to fit into this very small cage.

Helga, however, had an answer for Max. Helga explained that each day, at the start of work, she could sprinkle some pixie dust on Max that would turn him into a rat. Then, at the end of the day, the pixie dust would wear off and Max would become a bear again. Max could fit into his tiny, steel office during the work day, but still go home a bear at the end of the day.

Or so she said.

Plus, Helga explained, it really was better for Max that he become a rat, because rats have the size and instincts to find the really good garbage, and the only way he was going to make any sort-of impression on his superiors would be if he brought back better garbage than any of the other employees at the end of the day.

Max didn’t like his choices. He didn’t want to be a rat, even for a few hours a day. He didn’t like garbage. And he certainly didn’t like that small cage, but he felt like he had come this far, so he might as well go through with it. Plus, he could still go home at nights and be a bear and enjoy his big cave by the lake (once he got his promotion, that is), and he supposed that – some day – it would all be worthwhile.

So Max agreed to let Helga turn him into a rat each day. And every day, even though he began to suspect that Helga’s pixie dust contained asbestos, Max kept coming back. Max would be let out of his office for a little while each morning and afternoon, and he would race other rats around the garbage dump looking for choice pieces of rotting cabbage or near-empty motor oil bottles , which he would then return to his office.

In the meantime, Sally and Max had two boy bear cubs of their own: Calvin and Francis. Calvin and Francis were rowdy, fun-loving cubs that – though they were very dear to both Max and Sally – would drive Sally up the wall while Max was at work. Max would often come home at the end of a tiring day of rat racing only to discover an equally tired Sally, and they would often drown their misery in takeout that they couldn't really afford before putting the kids to bed and dragging themselves into bed.

Max also began to notice that his appearance was changing, even after the end of the day – after the pixie/asbestos dust was supposed to wear off. His tail was getting longer and his fur was getting shorter, and his nose was starting to get more pointed, and he didn’t seem to be getting any taller. Max suspected that somehow all of the racing for garbage, and racing for promotions, and racing to avoid being laid off, and racing for the fast lane on the freeway, was somehow turning him into a real rat, even when he was at home, trying to be a bear. And that thought frightened him quite a bit.

Max and Sally occasionally went to bear church, where they sang songs and had pleasant chats with scrawny, mousy acting bears that were very proper and civilized. When they went, Max tried to tuck his tail in and fluff up his fur and appear as bear-like as possible. Sometimes, he thought he had everyone fooled into thinking he was a normal bear. Sometimes, he suspected that the church bears did notice that he was turning into a rat, but they didn’t seem to want to be bothered with the question of what to do if a rat was discovered in their midst, so, he supposed, they had decided it was a matter better ignored. This thought – that the people at bear church knew what he was, but didn’t want to be bothered to talk about it – made Max feel even worse than he felt when he had to cart a particularly smelly piece of garbage back to his office.

Then, one day, something wondrous happened. On his way to play another tiresome round of bear golf, Max ran across a glorious creature playing by the riverbank. It was tall and strong and powerful. Black as night. It made a fearsome sound that was both beautiful and earth shaking at the same time.

At first, Max puzzled at what sort-of creature this was. But the truth soon dawned on him: this was a real bear. Not the half-sized rat bear he had become. Not one of the scrawny, mousy bears that he encountered at bear church. This creature was what he really always wanted to be: a great, powerful, gentle bear like his own Papa.

And at that very moment Max realized that it really didn’t matter if he had a big cave by the lake. He had been in the rat race for years and years thinking that this was important, but he now saw – for the first time – that it really didn’t matter that much. He wanted so badly to stop being a rat and to stop fighting with other rats over smelly garbage. He wanted to find a way to become one of these mighty creatures – not only for himself, but so that he could set an example for Calvin and Francis of what they, too, could become. And he wanted it for Sally, so that she would no longer have to put up with being married to a sad, cranky bear-rat.

But how, Max wondered, after all I have become, could I ever become this kind of bear?

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