East of Eden

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I have always been intrigued by the question of whether humans are intrinsically good or evil. It is a question that has been addressed and debated over the millennia in literature, art, film, and especially sacred scripture.

Last night I had the good fortune to see a dramatization of John Steinbeck’s classic novel East of Eden at the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The play did a great job of capsulizing the complex story with its many references to the Biblical Creation story, especially the story of Cain and Abel.

In East of Eden, there are two sets of brothers whose relationships are tested by rivalry and jealousy, universal sibling conflicts made worse by parental favoritism. But it is the choices they make that define who these characters ultimately become in the novel.

In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is angry and dejected when God rejects his offering. In response, God admonishes Cain,

If you do well, you hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.

God is telling Cain that he has a choice, that he is not fated to succumb to evil. Cain’s choice is to kill his brother Abel and consequently to be banished to “the land of Nod, east of Eden.”

In his most personal of novels, John Steinbeck is telling his own sons and all his readers that we are not victims of our past or our DNA but rather the sum of our choices.

So are humans inherently evil? Without a doubt. Just a perusal of the daily news gives ample evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. But it is also true that humans are intrinsically good. Every day there are individuals quietly performing small acts of kindness and often huge acts of courage and generosity that speak to their desire to love others.

So while we may be living in the land “east of Eden,” we are in control of the narrative of our own lives. May our actions tell a story of love and hope more often than one of hate and despair.

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