Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I got a tattoo

Yes I did. It's the word "timshel" written out in my own cursive handwriting on my right wrist. It's a Hebrew word found in the book of Genesis meaning "thou mayest," but I got the idea from the book "East of Eden," by John Steinbeck. In Genesis, the word appears when God is telling Cain whether he may be able to rule over sin. The phrase has been translated as "thou shalt rule over sin," "do thou rule over sin," but John Steinbeck stumbled upon the more recent translation of "thou mayest rule over sin." Here is the specific excerpt from East of Eden:

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 their 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 interfere 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.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”

“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”

Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”

Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”

Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”

“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

I know that some people--particularly some in my family--are categorically against tattoos. I invite them to open their minds to the idea behind this one. I've wanted a tattoo for a few years now, and I've known the purpose it would serve, but I just didn't know the form. The purpose of having this word always in plain sight is to remind me that whatever situation I'm in, the path I take is up to me. If I ever feel stuck, the power is mine to get unstuck. Or even if the path is somehow already set, it is up to me how I perceive it. This is an eternal truth that some people never realize and most others forget.

This tattoo will also serve as a reminder of this time in my life. I came up with the idea back in May when Miles and I took our road trip to California and I was rereading East of Eden. We had just graduated the week before and were delirious with freedom. Now I'm heading to California to meet my best friends before flying to South East Asia, where who knows what will happen. I can't think of a period of time that more exemplifies the idea "Thou mayest."

1 comment:

  1. Holy crap Teague I can't believe you got a tat! Did Mom have a mini heart attack when she found out?