Past masters: John Steinbeck

And now that you don't

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“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Steinbeck is one of my half-dozen favorite authors, which you probably already know about me. I first read “East Of Eden” about six years ago while in the waning days of my marriage. I badly needed a distraction from the ongoing struggles of my own tumultuous life, and what better than the ongoing struggles of other people’s tumultuous lives?! It’s a slow-moving read with many, many characters, but small bits of it like this quote seemed to seep into my consciousness. Popped into my brain again today, apropos of nothing… but who knows, maybe it was apropos of something I’ll figure out later. It does seem to go hand-in-hand with my previous posts about embracing the suck.

Bantam - East of Eden - John Steinbeck

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It’s amazing how authors can, almost nonchalantly, throw such loaded statements into dialogue… Lee, the philosophical servant china-man, is making an observation of Abra’s life. The comment struck me because, not only is it profound in the context of the book, it resonates with me and my experiences. Perfection will never be attained by any of us, not on this earth. What a frustrating endeavor, trying to attain it! It’s like climbing up an endless staircase, falling down seven steps then making it up nine. I think the futility of it all can easily result in just giving up, throwing up the hands, and returning to poor habits and choices. Perfection seems like such pressure to me. I can’t stand the idea of tiptoeing around, holding my breath, afraid to make a mistake. When that burden is removed, I feel that I can finally breathe. Like Abra, I can be good. – Legacy of Stone

“East of Eden” is all about characters discovering that they aren’t perfect, they can’t earn love, and life doesn’t always happen the way they’d like it to. In that disappointment, characters have a choice to make between grace and jealousy, forgiveness and guilt, love and bitterness, and those choices affect the rest of their lives and relationships. I think that’s why “East of Eden” is so compelling. Everyone can relate to discovering imperfection – either in ourselves or those around us – and everyone has made a choice, consciously or not, about how to live within that truth of imperfection. – (near)pandemonium

Ultimately, when we try to be perfect we find it impossible to be good. The pretense of perfection leads people to be legalistic, judgmental, proud, duplicitous, depressed, and generally screwed up from the cognitive dissonance of an expectation that is cruelly contradicted by reality. “Perfect” people cannot be good. – Brian Zahnd

As an aside, another quote from that book gained immediate usefulness during those waning marriage days. In the story, brothers Adam and Charles were discussing the recent death of their father. Charles was interrogating Adam for details about his relationship with their dad, and Adam replied:

“I won’t answer you until I know what you’re getting at.”

I quoted that while undergoing a “line of questioning” from my ex. It was surprisingly successful. Who says literature is meaningless in the modern age?

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