In the novel that he told his editor he was born to write, John Steinbeck revisits one of the oldest stories: Cain, Abel. Free will.
“But think of the glory of the choice!” Lee, a character in East of Eden proclaims after studying Hebrew to determine the meaning of the verb that defines the Cain and Abel story in just two syllables: timshel. Thou mayest.
“Thou mayest!” Lee marvels, “Why, that makes a man great…for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he still has the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
As graduation approaches, these passages echo through my mind. I entertain many courses. After May, I could attempt to live and work just about anywhere.
“What I wouldn’t give to have all that freedom!” family members and friends proclaim, thrilled for the choices ahead of me. I appreciate their encouragement, but the gift of freedom to choose is also the burden of freedom to choose. All those choices: how will I choose the right course? Is there such thing as a “best choice” for my next step? Any choice I make will come at the expense of most other choices: the word “decide” comes from the Latin decidere: to cut away.
I wake up in the middle of the night. Thoughts of the future—the what next?-where next?—crack into my sleep and give way to anxious black stretches of doubt and concern. The same nagging questions occupy the space where dreams would have been.
The gory of the choice.
Since I first read East of Eden at age 17, its timshel message has intimidated me as much as it has inspired me. “[Timshel] might be the most important word in the world… .That throws it back on a man….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 timshel puts the responsibility on me. I get to choose? I have to choose. I make my bed, I lie in it.
Discussing similar decisions with similar friends in a similar life-stage, I’ve observed that we are all weighing the same considerations as we entertain the what next?-where next? questions:
- What distance could I live (do I want to live) away from family? Friends?
- Where will there be an interesting variety of good, stimulating people?
- Where will I have the opportunity to meet quality potential friends, potential dates?
COST OF LIVING
- Where can I afford to move?
- Where can I afford to live now?
- Where could I afford my past and future? That is, where could my income exceed my living expenses just enough that I will be able to gradually pay down student loans and build up a savings?
- The economy is rough, and plenty of people with solid qualifications lack jobs. Where will I have a chance as a competitive job candidate?
- Where are there enough professional options that I will have the chance to grow and challenge myself professionally?
- Where are there opportunities to exercise, explore, and relax as part of my regular routine—particularly in parks, open spaces, and public recreation areas?
- Where will I feel reasonably safe and secure as I go about my regular routine?
- Which places have, or are close to, a solid variety of cultural and educational amenities or attractions?
- Where are there four seasons pleasant enough, by my personal tastes, for me to enjoy being outside in each season?
- Which town or city is close to landscapes or water bodies that I want to explore (again or for the first time)?
- What kinds of outdoor/recreation/exercise activities could I do in and around any new city I consider?
So many gory details! So much to somehow measure and prioritize as I lose my sleep, as I make my choice.
But I don’t lose sleep all nights. Some nights, I am comforted by the bleak truths of the current job market (and the example of friends and peers whose months of aggressive job searching have yielded no, or very limited, employment options). The fact that jobs are so scarce, and my economic need so genuine, relieves me of some of the burden of the choice. I can tangle my mind up with a series of heady questions about my values and preferences under the idea that my next step will be determined by my own free choice, but economic survival is necessarily the top variable in this decision web. A new city is only an option if a job there is an option.
So it seems that, applied to the current realities of my real life, timshel should have me sleeping easy. What limits the glory of the choice relieves the gory of the choice.