Thou mayest

Rules are for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men.” – Douglas Bader

Unfortunately, I have succumbed to my own rule against intellectual porn in running across this quote somewhere (it wasn’t Pinterest!), and I can’t seem to find any context other than that the guy was a bit of a rule-breaker. In any event, I shall borrow the phrase and try to provide my own context as I try to tie together the long-winded journey I have taken through should, s’pose’da, the democratization of selfishness and embracing responsibility.

The world is full of people with opinions of what is right and good. Put all that aside to focus on one simple truth – you are the one who chooses what path your life takes and you are the one who will bear the consequences of your choices. Others may try to deceive, flatter, assuage, persuade or reason with you into behaving in ways they feel most appropriate, but you ultimately must choose and act, perhaps sometimes in accordance with external pressure and perhaps sometimes against.

No matter what you choose, you will be able to find people who are more or less like-minded and you will be able to join with them. However, if your beliefs and values are important to you, you may never find a perfect match once all the nuances are considered, but you can probably get close. As for that final yard of difference…well, the cost of holding on to your beliefs and values may be isolation and loneliness and whether that is a price worth paying is what you will have to consider.

Choosing is a process and a journey, one that is much more important than the result of any particular choice. Any particular poor choice can be learned from and potentially even corrected in subsequent choices. What is so important about the process is that it is the process by which we explore the most important life that will ever exist for us and the only one over which we have any semblance of control – our own.  Perhaps this journey is what the poet T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote these words about exploration:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– Little Gidding, section V

Applying these final thoughts to a trio of characters from East of Eden, let’s follow the way certain verses of the Old Testament impact the life and journey of Sam, Adam and Lee. At first, Lee, a Chinese thinker and servant, describes the process of trying to understand the verses when he took them to the Chinese wise men to ponder them:

“The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking – the beautiful thinking.” Page 301.

What they were trying to understand was whether the English translations of a verse in the Cain and Abel story meant that man is ordered to triumph over sin or promised that he will triumph over sin.  After this beautiful thinking, they came to the conclusion that the correct interpretation of the verse is that man may triumph over sin – that the choice is his. The importance of the distinction? 

“’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…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.’” Page 301-302.

This was a revelation to the three men. Sam, embracing the possibility of the human soul for growth and for being able to handle more than others might think possible, decides to no longer shield Adam from a potentially devastating piece of information. He decides to let Adam choose whether to take “a medicine that might cure you and also might kill you,” regardless of the fact that he is not certain whether Adam can handle it. Sam is ready to take whatever blame may come if the “medicine” destroys Adam. The information ultimately is proven to be a medicine, and Adam is able to recover from the shock of this new knowledge and to re-start his life as a result of it.

Finally, Lee and Adam discussed the importance of this concept ‘Thou mayest’ to Sam after Sam had died:

“[The concept of ‘Thou mayest’] set him free,” said Lee. “It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.”
“That’s lonely.”
“All great and precious things are lonely.”  Page 520

Your soul is too important to just give it over without thought in obedience to any system. It is foolish to do so. Apply some beautiful thinking to your life. Examine what is uniquely important to you, and live your life accordingly. Upon reflection, some of the rules you currently find yourself under may provide you useful direction, but if those rules, created by some authority figure via some unknown process influenced by unknown factors for an unknown purpose, conflict with what you feel is right, whose side will you choose?

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