The Genesis of a Fixed Mindset

One of the first stories told in the Genesis narrative is the killing of Abel. Sadly this is a story we have had to retell and relive in every generation. What is this primordial drive to kill each other?

As the story goes Adam and Eve, who were recently kicked out of Eden, had two boys. Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a farmer. They both were moved to bring offerings to God. Cain brought the fruit of his labor and Abel brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God accepts Abel’s offering, but rejects Cain’s. There we read:

Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And God said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right- Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.”

Genesis 4: 5-7

As we know Cain does not heed God’s warning and lures his brother to the field where he kills him. I am curious to explore God’s warning to Cain and to all of us.

What is this “longing”? Rashi comments saying

The longing of sin; it refers to the evil inclination. This is continually longing and desiring to make you sin.

Rashi on Genesis 4:7

From this you might deduce that Cain and all of us have to follow our evil inclination, are prone to rage, and fated to commit fratricide. But that is not the whole story. Rashi goes on to explain the notion that God instructs Cain that if he wants to he can master it. Quoting the Gemara he says

If you desire to, you can gain the victory over it (Kiddushin 30b).

Rashi on Genesis 4:7

It is true that God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s but that is not a critique on the person of Cain. I would like to share a reading aligned with Rashi’s reading. It was as if God was coaching Cain is saying, “In 10 tries you could win 9, but Abel won this one. Get our there and try again. Learn from your failure and your will do better next time.”

This reading of the story of Cain reminds me of  Dr. Carol Dweck‘s Mindset. It is a wonderful book in which she uses her research in psychology to outlines two typological mindsets. Mindsets are beliefs  about yourself and your most basic qualities. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a Fixed Mindset believe that their traits are just given. People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Below you can see a great graphic explanation of these two mindsets. Dr. Dweck argues that having a Growth Mindset is the secret to being successful in everything including sports, parenting, business, school, teaching, coaching, and relationships.

A toddler falls many times while learning to walk. That falling is not failing, it is just part of learning how to walk. This is the Growth Mindset at work. But why and when we we learn this Fixed Mindset?

Above in Rashi’s reading of this story God is pleading with Cain to have a Growth Mindset. The evil inclination is having a Fixed Mindset. Sadly Cain was threatened by the success of of brother Abel. He was depressed because he saw his efforts as fruitless. Cain could not see that it was just his sacrifice was not accepted, he himself was rejected. He saw himself as a reject. God was urging him to shift to a Growth Mindset and be inspired by his brother’s success, accept criticism, and build on this the next time he made an offering. Beyond the story of Cain and Abel being the first story of one man killing his brother, it is the tragedy of the genesis of the Fixed Mindset.

-See other articles on Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset:

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