Thou Mayest

by Nic Olson

I sat at the Housing Strategy Public Forum at noon on Thursday. I listened as four city representatives justified a plan to fix a city, scrambling to answer questions from dozens of disgruntled citizens about housing in various forms. Providing housing for the masses is a priority, they said. Just not as serious of a priority as making a lot of money, they neglected to say. The citizens’ sole chance to have their say in a hotel lobby with free cookies and Fruitopia. Democracy works.

I wondered whether it counts as having a voice if you are speaking to those do not have ears.

So mom said this, “I think sometimes for your own sanity you have to believe that people will eventually do the right thing.” I genuinely do not believe that people will eventually do the right thing. I only have so many years of life to impatiently wait. What I do believe, for my own sanity, is that people can do the right thing. They have the choice and this puts me at greater ease. Because I expect nothing. Because I am not waiting with fried nerves for the sun to explode. I’ve got to believe at least this or I will give up, and giving up is a cardinal sin in anyone that matters. I’ve got to believe this or I might kill myself. I’ve got to believe it whether it is true or not. My cynicisms no longer reach as far as believing in an inherently evil humanity. I have passed that point in my perpetual anger. If that were the case, we would have starved long ago.

“Maybe it’s true that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.”

-Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 51.2, p568

Though we may not be an evil people, we are still not inherently good. We are inherently selfish, and this to me seems concrete. As animals we instincually make decisions to ensure our personal survival. This is not news. Humans can, however, break this conditioning. There is still a choice.

In East of Eden, Lee studies the story of Cain and Abel.

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”

“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in the sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interefere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, 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.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph…

“…This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that gilttering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed because ‘Thou mayest.’”

-Steinbeck, East of Eden, Chapter 24.2, p301-302

I still question the effectiveness of a political process that is so inane as a public relations exercise with five different types of cookies. I question the point in trying to penetrate the infinitely-layered inclined mountain of bureaucracy. But possibilities arise. Thou mayest triumph over sin. Thou mayest triumph over ignorance. Thou mayest triumph over selfishness. This, Steinbeck says, is what makes man great. He still has “the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”

It doesn’t matter what others do—I must remind myself of this. Letting the poor decisions and monumental mistakes of others disrupt your progress along the line of choice is foolish. Thou mayest. Or thou mayest not, and it doesn’t fucking matter to me what the innumerable morons of the world decide to do. As long as I remember that both they and I had a choice.

Because ‘Thou mayest.’