John Steinbeck was one of America’s most prolific and insightful novelists. Renowned for his prize-winning works that most of us either enjoyed or endured at some point in our education (depending upon our perspective), one of Steinbeck’s lesser known novellas is my personal favorite. It is a penetrating little book called The Pearl. Steinbeck’s story begins with a poor Mexican pearl diver named Kino. He happily ekes out a living for his wife and son with a little canoe and a thatch hut on the beach. When Kino’s child is bitten by a scorpion, the wealthy doctor will not see the child, for Kino has no money.
Nor will the priest come to pray for the child, because Kino and his wife aren’t properly married – again, because Kino can’t afford to pay the church for a proper wedding ceremony. But through grace or ill-fated fortune, Kino discovers a pearl as big as his fist: The “Pearl of the World,” the locals call it, the most incredible treasure the village has ever seen. Now Kino will be rich. He and his wife will be properly married. His son will be healed. The family will get new clothes and a larger house. His life will be transformed. But, things don’t work out as well as Kino had hoped.
Greed takes over in entire village. Thieves attempt to rob him. The pearl traders refuse to barter with him. His friends grow psychotically jealous. Kino begins to spend all his energies hiding and protecting his treasure. His wife, who sees how the new wealth is destroying their family, tries to get rid of the pearl, only to have Kino viciously attack her. More robbers burn their house down. They are forced to run for their lives while would-be assassins mercilessly stalk the family like prey. Yet, Kino cannot let this pearl go. He cries out in desperation: “What can I do? This pearl has become my soul!”
In the end Kino loses everything: His home, his young child, his little canoe by which he made a living, his respectability in the village, and his ability to escape to a better life. He and his wife stand on the Pacific shoreline and heave the evil pearl back into the ocean. The treasure he thought he wanted, in the end, breaks him. Thus, Steinbeck’s little story is about far more than a poor Mexican diver. It a tale of human nature; it is about getting what one wants, only to discover that the fulfillment of that desire is one’s undoing.
We all enter this world with empty hands, open hearts, and restless spirits searching for some kind of treasure – something to fill the emptiness. The search is intrinsic, natural, and good. Jesus spoke of this search in a way that Steinbeck later duplicated: We are searching for the “Pearl of Great Price,” Jesus said, that invaluable treasure of the soul that is worth more than all the world. It is an acquisition of the soul – and only the soul – that satisfies our search.
The glitch in all of our pursuits is that many of the things we seek do not actually fulfill us. They are actually detrimental to us and to the world. My guess is that the majority of individual and cosmic suffering is the direct result of our improper and misguided searches.
The itchiness in our hands and in our hearts sends us looking for an emotional and spiritual scratching post, but we entrust ourselves to people and objects that simply cannot deliver the goods. To quote an old country song, we go “looking for love in all the wrong places.” And when we go looking in all the wrong places, we end up with all the wrong outcomes.
But it’s never too late to find the satisfaction we can’t seem to corner. We just have to turn our attention to the true treasure of the soul, the Pearl of Great Price. We just have to search in the right place, and almost magically, we end up with the right results.