Can't Get To Freedom By Ourselves

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the character, Lee, is excited about timshel, as translated, "thou mayest." The possibility of acting where there is neither a command ("Do thou") nor a guarantee of an outcome ("Thou shalt") is indeed exciting. It’s very engaging. When no particular authority is commanding and the outcome is up for grabs, then we are called upon to use moral deliberation. Then we bring all our tastes and preferences to the table – they all get to be considered even if they aren’t all gratified. Then we can pursue purposes with integrity with an overarching sense of who we are.

How can you get more Timshel – more of that experience of freedom – in your life? In other words, what might I say today that might function as a cause to help your action be less caused by causes you don’t like and more caused by causes you do?

Practice attention. Just notice what’s at work in you. Noticing that you’re angry, or that you’re scared, noticing the tightness in your chest or throat or shoulders or stomach, noticing the heat rising on your skin, or the contraction of hair follicles that is that hair standing on end feeling – just bringing conscious awareness to these feelings gives them less power over you. Not zero, but less.

Noticing hunger, just paying attention to the sensations, opens up a greater experience of freedom. If we don’t much notice what the hunger really feels like, then we just reflexively grab a bite to eat. But if we do notice it, possibilities of choosing otherwise come into view. We bring our own language of deliberation into the situation, and it might produce a different outcome than just unthinkingly responding.

Or notice when you’re not hungry. Am I reaching for some food when I’m actually not hungry? Noticing where that impulse or habit to eat might be coming from, if it isn’t coming from hunger, allows us the feeling of greater choice – which is to say, it brings the language of deliberation into the causal mix.

If sin is anything that isn’t manifesting your best self -- something that you did that came from an impulse that you would rather have overridden -- the reminder that you have choice – that is, the reminder to bring conscious deliberation into the mix – can be helpful. I was, for example, struck with the blog post by a young woman who struggles with injuring herself, and sometimes with impulses to suicide. She wrote:
'A few weeks ago my friend Austin told me about his favorite passage from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In this part of the story, the characters discuss the different translations of the Bible story about Cain and Abel. They found that each translation used a different phrase to describe Cain’s relationship with sin. The King James version says “thou shalt” conquer sin, whereas the American Standard one says “do thou rule.” But the Hebrew word used is “timshel,” which translates to “thou mayest.” And that means there is a choice. With “timshel,” Cain would have a choice to either rule over sin or not. As I sat on the floor listening to Austin speak, my knee shaking with the anxiety of the thoughts in my head, I felt the power of timshel. I knew that while my head was telling me to self-injure, that I needed to self-injure, in reality the words in my head were not “thou shalt” but rather “thou mayest.” I had a choice, and I was able to choose to be safe.' (Emily Van Etten, "Timshel")
Yes. I certainly want to affirm her power to choose to be safe.

Of course, one passage from Steinbeck is not a cure-all. Her struggles returned. Still, any time we can manage to move into the space of conscious choice, bring the forces at work in us into the light of self-awareness, we do, temporarily, open up a little more freedom. At the same time, we should also remember that, in Genesis, immediately after Yahweh tells Cain, “you can be its master,” the very next two sentences are:
“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Come, let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”
So one little reminder often doesn’t do much.

Cultivating the habit of constant self-awareness, always noticing the needs, feelings, desires as they arise, this is the practice of freedom. We do this not to suppress or reject the parts that we don’t like, but to own them and embrace them.

To hold ourselves fully responsible – that is, response-able; able to respond to – all of who we are – to own and re-integrate all of ourselves, all the terrible things we’ve done and said and felt and failed to do or say – this is the practice of freedom.

Psychologists use the term “dissociation” to describe a range of detachments from reality. It often has to do with distancing ourselves from a part of ourselves. In extreme cases, it is multiple personality disorder, as the Dr. Jekyll self seeks to sequester and banish the Mr. Hyde self. We are all prone to some form of dissociation – we want to identify with the parts of the self that we like, and get rid of the parts we don’t like. Freedom comes from embracing it all. Cain is banished from the presence of Yahweh and goes to the land of Nod, East of Eden. Freedom comes from bringing your inner murderous Cain back from the land of Nod (the land of nodding off, the land of sleepy unawareness), back into the full presence of the awakened self -- and owning the responsibility for all of who you are. Not indulging every whim, but not suppressing any either. Neither indulging nor suppressing, but aware of and responding to. We do not rule over our sin by banishing it, but by welcoming it into the community of self, by recognizing the legitimacy of its needs.

At the end of East of Eden, the servant Lee begs for the father Adam to give his son, Cal, his blessing. “Don’t leave him alone with his guilt…Let him be free,” pleads Lee. And Adam, as he is dying, whispers one word: “Timshel!” "He thus affirms that Cal has indeed, by accepting responsibility, demonstrated that he is capable of ruling over sin." ("John Steinbeck's Midrash on Cain and Abel")

In the end, freedom and responsibility are not something we can do by ourselves. We need each other creating the community that can show all of us, all of our parts, back into relationship. You have to do your part, but you don’t have to go it alone. Indeed, you can’t do it alone. Freedom means no one is banished. And that takes all of you welcoming all of who you are, all of us welcoming all of us.

A British band called Mumford and Sons has a song titled “Timshel.” Some of the lyrics echo the East of Eden passage we've been looking at:
“And you have your choices,
And these are what makes man great
His ladder to the stars.”
But the song lifts up also the crucial role of one another.
“But you are not alone in this
And you are not alone in this.
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand,
Hold your hand.”
“I can’t move the mountain for you”
“But you are not alone in this."
Timshel: we can do it. Si se puede. Thou mayest rule over sin – that is, we just might overcome all banishment, heal from our dissociations, enter into a welcoming responsibility. We may become whole through love. We need all of us. That's our ladder to the stars.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Timshel: Thou Mayest"
See also
Part 1: "You Can Be Its Master"
Part 2: Determinism Is Beside the Point

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