Tuesday, May 8, 2012

One Story

"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved.  Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.  When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror.  It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world."
--John Steinbeck, East of Eden
In East of Eden, Steinbeck claims that "there is one story in the world, and only one" and that it is the story of how "[h]umans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too--in a net of good and evil."

I've been thinking about this insight, and about the others that Steinbeck's novel has to offer.  What stands out to me most of all is the extent to which, in the world that Steinbeck describes--the world of his parents' generation--suffering and effort were simply facts of life.

I wonder, sometimes, whether our mental anguishes and sadnesses--our frustrations at the extent to which we are all constrained by the net of good and evil that enmeshes us all--are products of the ease life offers us now, when compared with the lives Steinbeck describes.

A little over one hundred years ago, life was short, death was often sudden and brutal, illness ran rampant, and options were limited.  Productivity was defined very differently and in many cases, survival was by no means a given.

Steinbeck's novel muses on what his parents' generation endured--and on the ways in which they endured it.  This isn't Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," it's the generation that preceded it.  It's the generation no one thought to label.

One scene in particular has consumed my thoughts for today, because it resonates so much with my own experiences over the past two months.  I think that, at some point in our lives, we all struggle with the conflict between a commitment to kindness and generosity of spirit and the harsh realization that this approach simply won't work with some people.

We usually learn it as someone is running roughshod over us, all the while encouraging us to continue to be kind and to put their own best interests ahead of everything else.

At one point in East of Eden, Adam Trask confronts his estranged wife.  The woman has done horrible things to him and to others--to such an extent that the narrator occasionally wonders whether she's actually human.

It's definitely debatable.

Nevertheless, Adam chooses to behave honestly towards her, despite the fact that she has lied to him repeatedly and despite the fact that he knows she has a decided propensity for selfish cruelty.

She calls him "Mr. Mouse."

And yet, slowly and systematically, Adam escapes the love he once had for her and the bitterness of her influence.  And when he does, he is able to do what he knows is right and to look at her without emotion, even when she ridicules him for his course of action.

In the end, all he feels for her is a kind of existential pity, a sympathy for the fact that all she will ever be able to understand about the world and the people around her is their dark ugliness.  She will always be looking to take advantage of other people's trust and kindness, and because of that, she will never be able to feel or value the goodness of that trust and kindness.

As he tells her, "You see only one side, and you think--more than that, you're sure--that's all there is."

There may only be one story, Steinbeck suggests, but there are many sides--many ways to tell, to hear and to understand the ways we find ourselves caught in the net of good and evil.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."