I think everyone has an Uncle Leroy.
We all have that person in our family who is notoriously irresponsible. Families talk about Uncle Leroy behind closed doors, telling their children stories about what not to do. My dad talks about the wise career guidance he received from his parents, which was something like “Get a job. Don’t be like Leroy.”
My Great-Uncle Leroy never graduated from college. I’m sure he meant to when his parents paid for tuition, but somewhere along the way, he dropped out. He worked for the family business for a while before leaving to start his own company, which was operational for less than a year. He was married once for six months. He gambled and drank away his money, he bought houses and cars, financed mostly by his family members who took it upon themselves to keep him out of debt. Eventually, my grandfather grew tired of bailing him out, and left him to live with the consequences of his own decisions. “You never loved me,” Leroy said right before he died. “If you had loved me, you would have given me more.” I think there were three people at his funeral.
It doesn’t take much research into my family history to see this woven through every generation. Depression, alcoholism, suicide, domestic abuse—it’s all there. This blood is in my veins. This story is my story.
I read about the tendencies of my personality type, and learn I am rated “most likely to be depressed”, like it’s some sort of prize. I am also likely to be idealistic, and must be burdened occasionally by the necessity of functioning in the real world. I am likely to be overly emotional, to lash out in anger when things don’t go my way, and to base all of my decisions on feelings. When I read about how I long for human connections, but don’t know how to get over myself long enough to really connect with anyone, I say yes. That’s me.
I think about Uncle Leroy and say yes. That’s him. I think about my great great grandmother whose death certificate says she killed herself in a bout of postpartum depression and say yes. That’s her. I think of the letter my great great grandmother in Ireland wrote about her angry and abusive husband, and say yes. That’s him. I think of my many relatives who have turned to addictions rather than face reality and say yes. That’s them. I have their blood in my veins.
And so when I’m torn apart by envy, when I shut out the world when I’m feeling depressed, when I react with anger, or when I’m too busy daydreaming to remember the mundane details of life, it would be easy to point up to heaven and shout “You made me this way!” When I feel the weight of my nature overwhelm me, I could give into it and say “I have no choice, it’s just who I am.”
In the book East of Eden, John Steinbeck tells the long saga of a family history—a family history full of liars and thieves and failures. The last portion of the book focuses on the story of two brothers, Caleb and Aron. Cal can feel his history more than his brother. He can feel the evil inside him, and knows he is not good.
In the story, one of the characters discovers the meaning of the Hebrew word timshel within the story of Cain and Abel. As Cain begins to feel jealousy toward his brother Abel, God speaks to him in Genesis Chapter 4: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (ESV)
Most Bible translations say “you must rule over it”, but Steinbeck points out a slight difference int he original Hebrew.
“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 man. For if ‘Thou mayest’–it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”
We have the ability to choose. I can tell you story after story of family members who chose bitterness over forgiveness, who chose broken relationships over wholeness, who chose to squander their money and their opportunities and their life. But even though it seems like an uphill battle when I’m living with their blood in my veins and a corrupt human nature that traces back to Adam, I can choose to overcome it.
This is my story, and I’m sure each one of us could tell the same story—the story of our shortcomings and those who gave them to us. The story about the genetics we inherited without our consent, and all the events in our lives we cannot control. We can all read the story of Cain and Abel and say “Their blood is in my veins.”
This is the part of the story we cannot choose, but there’s also a part we can choose. There is a story waiting for each one of us that we can write ourselves—the story about how we overcame adversity and created something new, the story about how we brought goodness into the world despite the flaws within ourselves.
and you have your choices,
and these are what make man great
his ladder to the stars.
but you are not alone in this,
and you are not alone in this,
as brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand.
Timshel—Mumford and Sons