Steinbeck's Cesspool

We are capable of many things in all directions, of great virtues and great sins. And who in his mind has not probed the black water?

Maybe we all have in us a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. But this culture is fenced, and the swimming brood climbs up only to fall back. Might it not be that in the dark pools of some men the evil grows strong enough to wriggle over the fence and swim free? Would not such a man be our monster, and are we not related to him in our hidden water?

-John Steinbeck, East of Eden

In my post-graduate, unemployed summer-freedom, I’ve been curling up with one of my favorite novels, East of Eden. I needed to remember why it was deserving of this high position in my own little literary world. You see, I’ve only read it once. But I remember when I read the last words and closed the cover the first time around, I knew that it was one of the best stories I’d read. John Steinbeck is a master at capturing humanity—its glory, its mess, its humor, and all its peculiarity.

A few days ago, when I read the quote above, I was stuck by his profound analysis of the depravity of the human soul. Unlike many voices in our culture today, who claim a basic goodness in humanity, Steinbeck saw that in the deepest reaches of all of us, there are seeds of darkness.

A reflection on my own default thinking about this surprises me. I can affirm in an abstract sense the depravity of mankind, our inherent bent towards selfishness, greed, pride, and all those things we would label “sin.” I can also affirm in an abstract sense that all things “bright and beautiful,” all goodness and redemption are from God’s gracious and loving hand. And yet—I have the tendency to unconsciously view myself and other people as basically good. Even within Christianity, we have the tendency to see humanity as basically good, or to see our distinguishing marks as Christians as being basically good. But the Bible would be much more in agreement with Steinbeck: within the human soul is a cesspool of evil, and it merely leaks out more noticeably in some.

This isn’t meant to be a dark or depressing thought. This in no way diminishes the glory of mankind as made in the image of God. Perhaps it is out of God’s goodness that outright evil still surprises us and catches us off guard, because a close examination of the human heart should make it a bit more expected. Evil should point us back to the subterranean inkiness of our sinful souls, which is erupting out into the light of day.

It should also make us rejoice that much more heartily at the moments of humanity’s goodness, generosity, kindness, and love, for these are not our natural tendencies. When we see them, we should rejoice at the goodness and graciousness of God, who does not let us sink as low as we could—or should.

And when we see the darkness of evil stamped on the face of our world—and sadly, there is always a collection of recent events to choose from—we should not distance ourselves in quiet pride, shocked by someone else’s sin, a level to which we would never stoop. When we see others’ wrongdoing, it should not result in a self-satisfied pat on the back, that we’re a better person than we are, or a holier one. No, it should cause us to look at the seeds of darkness in our own hearts, turn to God in thanksgiving for his staying hand, and humbly say, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.”