Words have power. Words may be the closest thing we humans will ever experience to actual magic. What else has the power to transport a person to Hogwarts or Narnia. To break a heart or heal it. To help cultivate new ideas. To comfort or destroy. From the beginning of time words have allowed us an endless opportunity to touch the stars.
I’ve always been captivated by words and literature. But for the last few months I’ve found myself fascinated with literary tattoos. I know that it may seem like a bizarre fascination but sometimes we can’t decided what captures our imagination and thoughts. I tried to figure out where it came from. I concluded that it is because I have slightly been considering getting a tattoo. Those who know me may be surprised by that statement. A few years ago I would have been too. But things change, people change, and old ways of thinking give way to new. Obviously people know the arguments both for and against tattoos so I won’t bore you with those. It is a choice that each person has to make for themselves. Who am I to judge what someone else decides to put on their body and vice versa. Unless it’s just plain stupid- looking at you Australia with all your arm sleeve tribal tattoos.
Quick side tangent: if you’ve never been to Australia it may be the most tattooed country in the world. It seems like every guy under 40 has at least 4 tattoos and the same with the girls. I started a running count of “girls that would be attractive if they didn’t have a gaint tattoo somewhere on their body” The count is currently at 327. Obviously I’m not anti-tattoos but if you saw some of them you’d pay for the removal yourself. Yesterday I noticed how the end of a guy’s mo-hawk reached to the nose of the GIANT OWL tattoo on the back of his neck. I can’t make this stuff up. But anyway, I digress.
The more I thought about it the more I realized that getting a tattoo is a two- fold problem. Firstly, you have to decide where on your body you are going to put it. Secondly, you have to decide what exactly you want on your body forever. I think this last point is where my fascination began. What could be so important to someone’s life or such a significant representation that they wanted a reminder for eternity. I began to think then about myself and what would I want on my body forever. Part of the answer seemed obvious, I love reading- books, quotes, poems, anything and everything. Therefore, the next logical step would be a literary tattoo. Yeah it could be contrived as nerdy, but I’m kind of nerdy.
One thing led to another and thanks to the black-hole called the internet I ended up on Tattoo Lit. This site has pages upon pages on people submitting their literary tattoos. A lot of those authors and famous quotes you’d expect can be found there but there are also phrases, poems, books, and quotes that I had never even heard of. And because I am who I am I found myself constantly researching the context for a lot of these tattoos.
One of the ones I kept coming across was the world timshel. As I read the word it meant nothing to me. I didn’t even know if I was pronouncing it correctly. Regardless, I did what any other person in 2013 would do when they wanted to answer a question, I googled it. Turns out that one word opened quite the rabbit hole for me.
The word Timshel was brought to most people’s attention by John Steinbeck in his novel East of Eden. Timshel is a Hebrew word that translates to “Thou Mayest.” Why does this matter? Why should you care about “thou mayest?” Why have I decided to dedicate entire blog post to this concept? Let me first put timshel into its proper context. Below I have taken the relevant part from East of Eden applying to Timshel– both concept and context. In his book, Steinbeck writes:
“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?” “I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.” “Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. 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.” Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said. Lee sipped his coffee. “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.”…..
“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.” Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. 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.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. 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. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very importannt 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.’”
In short, Timshel gives people a choice on how to live their life. This choice is what gives life value. Those that believe in predetermination or destiny may find this concept disconcerting maybe even absurd. They relish in the fact that things are already decided for them regardless of their actions. But for those of us who believe that our actions actually matter this idea is imperative. If the way is open then you can both succeed or fail. That option is what makes life special. The risk. The choice. The ability to triumph or fail on your own. Not because something has to be one way or the other but because in the end you made a choice for better or worse.
Personally, I love the line “But I have a new love for the 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.” I love the idea that we are never destroyed or fully broken. There is no ‘life ending mistake’ because as it turns out life is a pretty resilient thing. Regardless of what we experience in our lifetime we are only as broke and damaged as we choose to be. We can be overwhelmed but we always have another choice coming and we get to choose whether to stay besieged by the problem or to rise above it.
I can see why people choose to tattoo the word Timshel on their bodies. It is a powerful reminder that the way is open for each of us. Despite the consequences of the past or our current circumstances we have the power of choice and that is a glorious thing if we embrace it and use it to enhance our lives. Many people will shy away from the responsibly of taking charge of their own life. It’s a shame, But in the end the choice is our own to make because- thou mayest.