Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nature, Nurture, or something else

In today's gospel we hear the famous metaphor of the fruit tree, and how you can judge a tree by it's fruit. For as true as this may be, there is one striking difference between humans and trees. No matter how I raise an apple tree, I cannot get it to bear oranges. I tree cannot change the kind of fruit it bears.

Growing up in the 60's in Danville, my parents were foster parents to an enormous number of children, mostly newborns. Including the three of us whom they adopted, I believe there were more than 100 total. I got an up close look at how human personality takes shape.

In those days there was a great shift occurring. An older generation saw humans much like other animals. For them it was a matter of breeding. You would hear them use expressions like "bad blood", convinced that people were doomed to turn out like their parents. We then shifted to a model that wanted to believe that they all came into the world the same, it was all about how they were raised, the nurture camp.

Happily we seemed to have come to recognize that it is not an either or, but a complex of both. Watching those babies, what science now acknowledges was clear. There are certain aspects that we are born with. There are also other aspects that are the result of how a child is raised.

What the debate seems to forget is the third part of the equation, and for my money the most important part, will. Will is the part that truly sets us apart and makes us human.

More and more we discover that part of who we are is hard-wired into us, it is indeed part of the genetic code. There are other aspects that are clearly the result of the family and culture in which we were raised. But over and above both these is how we choose to respond to both our traits by nature and traits by nurture that distinguishes us. What separates us from the trees is that we can choose how we respond to our inclinations, our urges, our cultural bias. We have the freedom to decide on a daily basis what kind of fruit we will bear. On a minute by minute basis we choose.

Working with mental health patients for a number of years I saw those patients who would choose to take their medicine and those who would not, knowing the results that would follow. Only those with the most extreme forms of mental illness or developmental disability can be said to lack this ability. For the rest of us it is a choice.

It may be that you have a tendency to be short tempered. It may be that you have a tendency to be stubborn, or judgmental. But you can choose whether or not to express that in your words and actions. We are nature, nurture, and free will.

Peaches or persimmons which will you bear today.