by Natalie Yuhas
The idea that love is a choice has always been difficult for me because I am insufferably indecisive. I drive my family and friends crazy when I refuse to give any input at all about where to eat or what to do. While it doesn’t really matter that much when talking about trivial decisions, it starts to become more of a problem when I have to face big decisions for after college and for the rest of my life. Making decisions scares me because so much about the future is uncertain and dependent on decisions we make now. I don’t want to choose the wrong thing. How can I know what the best decisions are? How can I love others fully if love is a choice and I am so indecisive?
My favorite thing about literature is that I can usually find answers, or at least comfort, through characters in books. East of Eden by John Steinbeck is one of the books where my margins are packed with notes because it has taught me a lot about the human condition and especially the importance of choice. It takes place in Salinas Valley, California and is, in a way, a retelling (or maybe a revisiting) of Genesis in the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the characters finds himself in a desperate situation with newborn twin sons he can’t attach to and a wife that abandons them. He sits around with two other characters one night and they start discussing Cain and Abel.
As the Genesis story goes, Cain and Abel are brothers. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd, so Cain gives God an offering of crops and Abel gives an offering from his flock. God regards Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s, and Cain is so furious that he murders his brother.
This story had always bothered me because God seems like such a jerk. Why would he pick one brother’s offering over the other’s? God doesn’t really say why He doesn’t like crops. What’s wrong with crops? If I were Cain, I would probably be upset about it too; the whole thing seems a little unreasonable. But now, after reading East of Eden, I see it as a story of hope and love.
One of the characters in East of Eden analyzes the passage of Cain and Abel and focuses on what God says, specifically, the word timshel. "The Hebrew word timshel—'Thou mayest'—that gives a choice. For if 'Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' That makes a man great and that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win." There is nothing Cain can do about the fact that God prefers the animal offering over the crop offering, but Cain does have the choice about how to respond to it. He can get a new offering or murder his brother; he can choose good or evil. When Cain chooses evil, God punishes him, but there is comfort in the fact that God also marks Cain so that no one can ever murder him. Cain made the wrong decision, but isn’t trapped by it. In even the most evil of choices, Cain is still forgiven and has a whole future ahead to embrace love.
East of Eden’s exploration of Cain and Abel gives me comfort that I can’t really make that bad of a decision, whether it is dinner plans or career path choices, in the sense that life tends to have a way of working out, even if it is not the road or plan your intended. More importantly than that, I shouldn’t hate making decisions because it is so important that we have free will and the ability to choose. We couldn’t truly love without this choice because love means choosing the good: choosing to forgive when you’re hurt, choosing to make someone else’s good your own, etc. What East of Eden made me realize is love as a choice is important and makes sense because when you choose love, there is no room for jealousy, like in the case of Cain and Abel, and there is no room for resentment or bitterness. Love forces you to choose the good over the evil and, in that way, real love makes you better.