I read a word once. It changed my life.
First, an explanation of an extra large year. I learned the shit out of 2013, to put it plainly. There were hateful things done and said towards me that I took so very personally. There were hateful things said and done by me that I casually tried to forget. There were apologies to people I will never get apologies from. There a stomach knotted in frustration at the overwhelming heap of things and people I cannot change. There were relationships bruised and broken and then again, others neatly mended, and lots of microscopic daily happenings, slight ticks on a big clock, that set in motion a mighty change. There were the happy, confusing things like precious babies and chocolate, good writing and amazing support. It was a hot mess mingle of amazing and awful that I just couldn’t figure out. In the midst of such turbulent time, I stole a minute to reread my favorite book, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and there it was. My word.
The book tells intertwined, modern interpretations of the story of Cain & Abel or as I like to call it “The Original WHY CAN’T YOU KIDS JUST GET ALONG? Tale”. For those of you who skipped Sunday School, here’s the basic gist: Adam & Eve had two sons, Cain & Abel. Both sons brought offerings to God, but God only accepted Abel’s. Cain, in a jealous bitch fit, killed his brother. God was super pissed, Cain got exiled to a land East of Eden, and he was all pitying himself while in eternal Time Out. I think that’s about right. I don’t know. I skipped Sunday School, too.
In Steinbeck’s recasting of the story, various characters attempt to pawn their bad behavior by blaming everything and everyone. Enter the one reasonable character, a wise, Asian servant named Lee, to set those hoodlums straight. A secret scholar, Lee decided to use his free time to pick apart the translation of the story of Cain & Abel. I would’ve spent my day off looking for a less Jerry-Springer-ish work environment , but that’s just me. In his studies, Lee discovered one word, one little word, that flipped the Life Script. And here is where one word changed me, stirred something up and settled something down. And here is where I hope this one word will change you, too. And I guess I should shut up and share it with you: TIMSHEL.
In his research, little Lee found that God didn’t so much lightning-bolt-n-hell-fire damn Cain as Cain damned his own damn self. Essentially, God told Cain that he can (if he insists on actin’ a fool) hurt himself. So it was with this small term, timshel, thou mayest, that I started to do The Big Thinking.
Upon adding ‘timshel’ to my vocabulary, I pranced around for a couple of months smiling all smugly, internally bragging because I was the only person who read the book and thus knew all kinds of major life wisdom more so than anyone else. Ha! I’ve got the secret to life, suckers!
Lady’s being mean to the cashier in the grocery store. Acts like she would be nicer, if her kid wasn’t screaming?
Timshel, motha fuggaaaaa! (throws hands up like exploding bomb)
Someone mad at me for not being mad at other people?
Damn, girl, you done damned yo’self. Tim. Shel.
Guy sucking at life because his dad sucked at life?
WHEN I SAY TIM, YOU SAY SHEL. TIM! SHEL! TIM! SHEL! (must cup one’s hands for proper cheerleading clap)
Watching a news report on “Affluenza”? Gossip? Wars? Retaliation? Rude against your own will?
To hell & Timshel with all of it.
Then I stopped being on my period, got my head out of everybody else’s business, and applied this new word to myself. And what an interesting concept that was.
Timshel demands self-reflection. It is a blessing and a burden, more or less one or the other depending on how you handle yourself. Rip the Band Aid off and lead with the bad news. So, here goes it: the burden. If for good or bad I am the boss of my behavior, I must take sole credit for the uglier moments. I must, literally, say “my bad”. Your parents might’ve been horrible. Your financial situation might make you cranky. The person you’re talking about might, in most minds, totally deserve it. But how did you live? How do you act? This side of timshel- this knowing that I am the one who mayest do bad all by myself- is, quite frankly, a bummer. I mean, wahhhh. I rather liked the philosophy of hitting back: that if you slap me first I can’t be held accountable for punching you in the nose. It’s only fun being as asshole when we can blame it on someone else. Can I get an amen from all my jerks in the crowd!
But fear not, depressed reader! The grand finale is good news. Timshel tells us that, while we have the power to be bad, we have the same power to not be. I have been told I’m this and that, mean, wrong, less-than, and plenty I have believed it. I’ve been told I’ve had such horrible intentions that I never knew I had. But all of a sudden, timshel. I may be good. If no one knows it. If know one acknowledges it. If it doesn’t feel like being the bigger person means winning. If everyone around me is aiming to hurt, to wound, to break. If the whole world wants to be bad and point a finger. I may still and always be good. What a relief that is! What a profound magic trick! I can do good all by myself, too.
What I found is that the more I remind myself- timshel, timshel, timshel– the less, eventually, I’ll need reminding. If I am so focused trying to be a good person, I pay less attention to other people’s ugliness because I recognize their badness as their own and because I’m too preoccupied working on good to even bother. Their mess is their mess. My mess is my mess. I’d like to spend what time I have cleaning up my clutter. So with just one measly word I feel empowered, motivated to be kind, freed from the heavy misbehavior of those around me, and-simply simplified. Like a finely distilled, purified cup of the happy-flavored juice. Don’t let nothin’ taint it.
Whether or not you need to call your old college roommate and apologize for blaming her for your body issues (it’s not her fault she looks cute in tiny shorts!), whether or not the holidays made you want to voluntarily get a transfusion so you can stop sharing blood with your kin, whether or not crowded parking lots and frigid winds feel like the perfect excuse to chew out an unassuming Target cashier, STOP IT. You can be better than bad. You may even be good.
On the verge of a fresh year (and perhaps every year, forevermore), I wish you a seriously new New Year.
Be good. I’m going to try to be. Because, by god, we’re allowed to.
What’s your word for 2014?