I should preface this I suppose with confessing that I don’t believe in god. I know enough of religion to know that I am not religious. Growing up I had a vague understanding of the stories of the bible–a kind of pop culture American collective conscience understanding. So this post, for me at least has nothing to do with god.
I knew about Adam and Eve, and how a woman ruined it for everyone. But I never read the story of Cain and Able until I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden this spring.
And while the religious elements and god’s role in the struggle of good versus evil were interesting (portrayal of the sole fleshed out female character as pure evil aside), one word stuck with me the most: Timshel. A Hebrew word meaning thou mayest. While the connotation is that we have all inherited this original sin and that you can choose to overcome and be worthy in the eyes of god, the word and the concept stuck me in a slightly different way.
There is a point in the book where the modern day Cain, named Cal says to his brother’s girlfriend Abra that he is no good because he is the son of a whore, she says “so what I’m the daughter of a thief.”
In the face of overwhelming guilt that he is responsible for both his brother’s and father’s deaths, the book ends with a single word–a translation that made all the difference in the Cain and Able story: Tismshel: Thou mayest.
What struck me about this thought was that we can overcome our circumstances, and I don’t mean that in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sort of way. Cal was not who his mother was, Abra was not who her father was. We are affected by our circumstances, but we do not have to be defined by them.
I know and read about horrible stories of human pain and suffering in the news everyday, but for some reason the story a few weeks ago of the three woman imprisoned and tortured for a decade in a home in Cleveland affected me more strongly than others. Maybe it was because they were women about my age who grew up in an area not too different from where I grew up and the thought of losing the last decade of my life, and of enduring such horrors is incomprehensible to me. And the six-year-old girl, who has only even known that life of horror, whose father was a man capable of that–how can she be happy? How can any of them live in our stupid world full of trivial complaints after that?
And then I heard a story where former victims of such kidnapping and abuse spoke about life after, and another quote stuck with me: “It is something that happened to you, it is not who you are.”
We live our whole lives with the burdens of our pasts. Our experiences, our circumstances, our childhoods, our parents, our joys and heartbreaks all color who we are. But the beauty in life and is that we have a choice. Not an easy one, but a choice nonetheless. We can choose the person that we become, we are not what has happened to us, we are not where we were born, what failures we’ve had, what mistakes we have made. Thishel. We can choose.