I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul … the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears.
My past two weeks, per usual, have been spent with several college students, weeping, ranting, emoting. A constant theme is the irrational fear of not being loved, of being rejected and then…being alone…forever. One student has such deep-rooted anxiety about being alone that she has panic attacks unless someone, anyone, is near her. Another young man is so sure he is unloved that he hears nothing that is not filtered through his own “rejected loser filter”—no matter what truth is said. Yet another young woman is so oppressed by the darkness, the fear of being trapped in it, because she is sure no one cares to truly know her. She admitted to me that she feels unremitting shame and it colors her every thought. I, myself, remember walking alone for endless hours in college thinking, “This is how it will be for the rest of my life: me, walking, in the dark, alone.”
Being human means having a selfhood and being consumed by that selfhood. When the process of growing up into an adult doesn’t involve seeing outside that self, we potentially never grow up. Just before the quote above, Lee in East of Eden also says
Of course, people are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And I here make a rule — a great and lasting story is about everyone or it will not last. The strange and foreign is not interesting — only the deeply personal and familiar.
When we continue to want only “the story” we’ve created, and allow no other players or characters entry, we are sucked deeply into the black hole of self. The problem is that this is everyone’s story. We all tell only our own story to each other—complete self- absorption and this story of self-centeredness is the grand narrative. Once we acknowledge others have parts to play, that is when potential fear crosses the threshold.
Where does this fear—being unloved and rejected—come from, and why is it so huge? East of Eden is fraught with characters, mostly fathers and sons, who are maddened with such terror. Charles beats his brother to a bloody pulp because he is convinced their father loves Adam more. Will exists in his own sad bubble, doing the only thing he ever thought would make him accepted by family, especially his father, Samuel. Cal craves his father’s love, even as he sees his father accepting his brother’s “sacrifices” and not his own. Angst and rejection-fear palpably controls each movement and action and thought.
What would it look like to Charles, Will, and Cal to be truly accepted and loved? On the surface, Will is a “good” boy, Charles and Cal are not. What makes Cal intriguing, though, is that he acknowledges his own inner-depravity. It is only in facing himself, his sin, and in facing it head-on, that change begins to occur and the fear can begin to fade. Steinbeck—in his narrator’s voice—is saying, “In uncertainty, I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed most of their vices are attempted shortcuts to love.” I’m not sure I agree with that completely but there’s truth there.
As an aside, many vices that we wouldn’t or shouldn’t accept as “shortcuts to love.” I can’t not bring up what is tormenting us currently: Was the above true of Adam Lanza? Was the murder of 27 people and his own suicide a “shortcut to love?” Who knows what caused Mr. Lanza to determine his worth or lack of worth. For any and all perpetrators of crimes such as these—Columbine, September 11th—is the gaping instigator rejection? We do not have the answers. What answers do we have? During such times I can only, then and now, meditate on the truth of the Heidelberg Catechism question #1:
What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, (a) am not my own, (b) but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ…”
But if Steinbeck’s narrator says our love-yearning lies beneath our frail surface, what dread lies at the deepest layer with it? What heinous tentacles have wrapped themselves so intricately into the layers of our souls? Often the lies that torment and terrify us most are the voices which say, “No one loves you.” This is the heartbreaking howl from the hearts of the men in East of Eden. Mockingbird often evokes the pervasiveness of this voice, the striving after acceptance, and belonging: “If I am not accepted, I have no worth. I am nothing.” Although it plays out in myriad scenarios, it is the lie we believe—out of it comes fear, shame, despair.
Think about the ultimate voice of rejection – Jesus Himself. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This comes only chapters after, “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The God-Man crying out to the perfect Father with perfect terror.
In the face of rejection, what is the worth we want? Where do we find our value and from whom do we give such sway? It appears to be a soul issue: “If we gain the whole world and lose our own soul…” but what is the worth of the soul? As we lurch through Advent I turn to the carol that resounds every December:
O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
His appearing is our worth. His presence is our worth. His love for us, made known in His death and resurrection, is our worth. What is that love? Without quoting all of L’Engle’s “Rachel Weeping” essay, C.S. Lewis provides a glimpse in The Problem of Pain:
When God becomes a Man and lives as a creature among His own creatures in Palestine, then indeed His life is one of supreme self-sacrifice and leads to Calvary.
The Christ became the self we should be. He is our worth and we are His inheritance and treasure because He made us so. Without this there is no worth. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son.” He has said “I will never leave you or forsake you.” This is our worth and it is all the worth we need.