Short story long…what my tattoo really means

I’ve been asked a lot about my tattoo since I got it a little over a year ago. I got it in part to commemorate my formal resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints but also because it was a tattoo I’d been thinking about getting for a few years. When two friends from work, Connie and Cheryl, asked if I wanted to go with them to get inked I felt like I’d run out of excuses and the time to act was now.


I have a nice, short answer for what “timshel” means. It doesn’t feel adequate to me, but it’s concise which serves its purpose in polite conversation. So, here it is:

“Timshel” means that I’m responsible for my own happiness.

Of course, that’s not what it means exactly, and for anyone who ever wondered if there was more behind it, there is. I picked the word up from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. If you haven’t read it or were planning on reading it at some point, you should stop here because I am about to spoil the shit out of it.

East of Eden is a modern retelling of the story of Cain and Abel as well as a partially autobiographical account of Steinbeck’s own childhood growing up in Salinas, California. The first time “timshel” is mentioned is during a conversation between the Trask family servant, Lee, Samuel Hamilton (Steinbeck’s actual maternal grandfather), and Adam Trask (who represents the Biblical Adam in the novel). Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants but was born and raised in the United States. He is one of my favorite literary characters of all time.

Lee, being a philosopher and scholar, takes a keen interest in the story of Cain and Abel after the initial conversation he, Sam, and Adam have about it while naming Adam’s twins. He notes that what God tells Cain after murdering his brother is different in the King James and American Standard versions of The Bible. Lee says:

“‘The King James version says this–it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.

“‘…Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.'”

So, Lee begins to study Hebrew and involves family elders who are scholars and philosophers themselves. They bring in a rabbi who consults with them. After two years of study they revisit the original Hebrew text and find that “timshel” translates more correctly to “Thou mayest“:

“‘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.'”

“‘…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.’

“‘…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 god. 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.'”

Now, as you may have guessed, the story does not end well. Years later, Caleb (the character meant to represent Cain), is a pragmatic, entrepreneurial type and Aron (representing Abel) is an idealist golden child with a bright future in the clergy. In a moment of jealousy and anger toward his brother, Caleb lets him know that their mother left them and is now a whore living in a town nearby. Caleb knows that Aron, who sees the world in black and white and isn’t the least bit worldly can’t handle this information. Aron takes his own life and when his father, Adam, hears the news he has a stroke. Caleb is devastated. He feels that he has killed his brother and his father is as good as dead. Lee brings a guilt-laden Caleb to Adam’s deathbed and begs Adam to forgive him, to not destroy him with rejection. Adam musters his last strength and manages to say the word, “timshel,” to his son before he closes his eyes and dies.

It’s a painful story to read, and I bawl every time I get to the end. But emotional masochism aside, I love the openness of the ending. We don’t find out what Caleb chooses, but we know that he has been given the choice, as have we all. One of the primary themes of the novel is the idea of being doomed to repeat our predecessors’ mistakes. My own family has plenty I’d prefer not to make.

And this is where it ties in to my own life. To give an example, I don’t think that my ancestors owned slaves, I know for a fact that they did. They fought for what they felt was a God-given mandate to cast aside the rights of others and profit from the forced labor of their brothers. I’m a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee. My ancestors lead the charge against equality. Please don’t mistake me, I don’t think it’s a thing to be proud of, but I also don’t think it’s something that should be swept under the rug. The fact that it existed in my own family makes it that much more personal. Had I lived back then, would I have been a product of my time? Being a product of your time doesn’t feel like a sufficient enough excuse to me. Yes, I do give credence to the Avenue Q tune “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” but I don’t want to be the level of racist that doesn’t try not to be.

When Paula Deen found out her predecessors owned slaves she said she was, “shocked.” Mind you, this was before we all found out about her dream of throwing a slavery-themed wedding. But that’s the exact hypocrisy I want to avoid. The same part of her that didn’t want to think about coming from a line of bigotry and cultivating hate didn’t acknowledge the blatant racism in her own behavior. You can’t fix a problem you don’t acknowledge you have.

This is a big reason I feel that talking about and fighting for gender equality and LGBTQ rights are so important. I do not want to be a part of the problem like so many of my predecessors were.

To me, “timshel” is about taking responsibility for my happiness by acknowledging mistakes and trying not to repeat them. It’s about cultivating integrity and being okay about the person I’m becoming. It’s about forgiving myself and apologizing to others sincerely and often. It’s about accepting criticism in all its forms and making changes based on that criticism. It’s about not just taking for granted that me and mine are good people, it’s about doing the work necessary to be worthy of that distinction.

I might not always get it right and, in fact, I frequently don’t. But I may.


2 thoughts on “Short story long…what my tattoo really means

  1. This is some of the most lovely and profound thinking that a human being can do. I am very impressed and very proud to be related to such a wonderful person as the writer. My complaint about many types of formal religion are that they do not allow open inquiry into their “rules”. But as we see illustrated here and elsewhere, the religions that allow for open discussion of ideas are the ones that survive the longest. The more open the door, the more people can come in. Teaching people not to think is not a good idea.


    1. I completely agree. Organizations like that seem to think it’s easier to manipulate people’s thoughts and feelings than actually strive to be moral and good.


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