Still on the road – so today we feature another of the Top 10 Senior Orations, this time by Liz Miller (’17). Her oration is entitled “Timshel.”
What a wonderful privilege it is to turn the first page of your college journey and begin shaping a four-year story with complete control over how it’s written.
I believe that all Wake students are story-tellers in their own right—not just the creative writing minors, but the bio-physicists, the political scientists, the accountants, and the artists. There are many ways of telling stories: whether it be through equations solved, governments analyzed, financial statements audited, or canvases painted. Or even over late night pizza at Zick’s, pitchers on Shorty’s patio, screams and cheers at the Joel, and Instagrams of Wait Chapel.
As an English major myself, my story has largely been shaped by authors read, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Willa Cather. Amongst many thousands of pages, some 600 occupy for me a seminal role. Those 600 pages belong to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, described on its back cover as “a powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is at once a family saga and a modern reading of the Book of Genesis.”
Wow. That rather broad and quite honestly, intimidating description, turned me away when I was first assigned the novel as summer reading in high school. Naïve and concerned solely with short-term goals, East of Eden was just a roadblock in the rest of my summer agenda.
It took those first hundred pages for me to realize that my English teacher had not unfairly burdened us students, but that the novel was, dare I say, actually interesting! I became increasingly appreciative of Steinbeck’s gift for making even the most inconsequential snippet of dialogue come off the page as a universal truth and finished the novel with time to spare.
But though I marveled at Steinbeck’s turning of phrase, understanding the over-arching thrust of the novel escaped me, for the easily extracted moral that I had come to expect of novels was seemingly absent.
So I turned to my ever-wise mother for help. She, an avid reader, picked up the book and finished it in short order. Much to my dismay, however, she, too, was unable to provide a simple analysis, though I could tell by the way she lit up talking through it that she considered the book special. She asked me to share with her the observations of our class discussion of the novel. Unfortunately, its scheduled discussion was pushed aside to address a menacing stack of practice AP exams. Utterly frustrated to have apparently read 600 pages unnecessarily, I resolved to one day return to the novel.
My return to East of Eden came unexpectedly four years later, when the delighted glimmer in my mom’s eye had begun to fade, as cancer weakened her body, and yet worse, her beautiful mind. So I sat by her side in the hospital with East of Eden in my lap, hoping it would somehow act as a glue to put me back together as I felt my world crumble.
Tired of the numbing distraction of hospital room TV, I found consolation in a challenging read. This time I opened the cover filled with anticipation instead of dread, encouraged by the annotations previously added by my mom. With our current conversations becoming increasingly more abbreviated and basic, I felt as though I could travel back into her native brilliance through her various underlinings, exclamation marks, and check points.
What had previously seemed a convoluted puzzle suddenly began to make sense. My eyes had been opened – not just by my mom’s tragic situation, but also four semesters of dedicating myself to the academic rigor that is Wake Forest. Steinbeck’s complex sentences and intertwined narratives no longer bogged me down. Rather, I was swiftly pulled along by the myriad connections I was able to make, not just with basic English courses but also Divisionals (i.e. Monotheisms). Noting Mom’s annotations while adding my own, I finished the book with newfound satisfaction and with a takeaway that has stuck with me ever since.
That takeaway is simply one rather unusual word: “timshel.” Chinese farmer/philosopher Lee introduces the idea of timshel in Part Two, explaining his findings after having spent two years comparing subtle differences in various translations of The Book of Genesis. He observes regarding the story of Cain and Abel: “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.’”
This idea of choice gave me new hope in a time when I felt victimized at the hands of Fate. No, I could not reverse my mom’s diagnosis. What I could do was chose to learn from it, to become a better person through the adversity that I faced. Rather than mope around (though I did that too…) I focused my energy on my studies, my family, and my friends. And that decision is why I am still here today.
I bring this up now because I believe it applies more universally than just to my situation. We all are living in a time of precarious uncertainty. “There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know,” Steinbeck wrote in 1953, as if he had a lens into 2016. Many may feel paralyzed by this uncertainty, lost amongst the debris of decaying systems of meaning. This feeling is surely understandable. That said, it is not something I expect from my Wake Forest peers.
I believe you all to possess what Steinbeck called “glittering human souls.” Yes, you are budding writers, scientists, politicians, accountants, and artists. But above all you are great people. You are smart, you are skilled, you are resourceful, you are dedicated. You have the ability to make the changes you envision for our world. You can write your story and positively affect others. All that is required is the self-discipline to do so. Wake has prepared you well.