Nature or Nurture?

The last two weeks in my home town I’ve been cleaning out my house.

Discarding tangible “stuff” that is a microcosm (or is that macrocosm?) of who you are and from whence you came is completely emotionally exhausting, thrilling, and terrifying.   I have dozens of boxes full of tens of thousands of loose photo prints, photo albums, negatives, and slides of family members, from sorrowful sepia portraits of impoverished great-grandparents left behind in tsarist Russia, to oodles of shots of my grandchildren participating in all varieties of childhood activities.  I have a hundred magazines and newspapers and journals containing articles I wrote over the past three decades about every topic imaginable, from Jewish culture to pop culture; health issues and political interviews;  travel; camping;  extreme sports; and weird museums.  All of these my husband is dutifully scanning and documenting.

I’m just now getting to stored boxes from my deceased parents, which  include amazing revelations about them both (it turns out that my mother, who throughout her life complained about how stupid and inadequate she felt, was a National Merit Scholar, junior high school valedictorian, and captain of her debate team (who knew!?); my father was friends with actress Mitzi Gaynor and served as her legal counsel, and was qualified to argue cases in the US Supreme Court; he survived unscathed through hundreds of beach landings in the South Pacific during WWII as a Lt. Cmdr of a fleet of LCIs, as well as a kamikaze attack, only to be hit by a streetcar in San Francisco during his discharge from the Armed Forces and was confined for months to a wheelchair in a veterans’  hospital there).

I was my father’s only child and there is nothing of mine he did not save.  Hence I have every bit of correspondence we exchanged (he was a workaholic and rarely home when I was awake, so we used to exchange notes (example, age 4:  “Dad, I am so angry at you I don’t even want to give you a kiss!”; at age 9, I wrote an “Amicus Curiae” brief in third person arguing in legalese why I deserved a raise in allowance).  In my visits to his office I was given free rein to record my thoughts on a Dictaphone (a needle scratched into a piece of cylindrical celluloid, to be played back at a later date on a special machine); one such celluloid recording is labeled “my daughter’s  thoughts on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy” — I was 6 1/2 years old at the time.  My parents also saved every single report card from nursery school through high school (I confess I was not a stellar student and rarely worked to my potential, according to my teachers’ comments).

There are two things I find most fascinating:  the observational essays I wrote as a pre-teen and teenager are still entirely relevant today (why I loved my parents; an analysis of their marriage (I was a precocious little brat!); what life was like in Israel before the 1973 Yom Kippur War; why Judaism was important to me; and, perhaps even more unsettling, the realization that for better or worse, the person I was at the young age of 4 years and 2 months, based on my preschool evaluation, is basically the same person that I am today.

According to that report card, I was “physically agile and active; good in both small and large muscle control;” I ate “well” and “willingly and enthusiastically participated in all activities, especially music and stories and craft work.”   As part of a group, I “got acquainted with others with self-assurance, enjoyed one ‘special friend’ but could include others if necessary”; usually preferred to lead, and reacted to other children in a “friendly but sometimes indifferent manner.”  Under “temperament” I was “sociable and flexible, sometimes critical; but popular with the children.”   According to my father, in a series of letters he wrote his parents when I was ages 2 – 10,  I left my socks and shoes discarded all over the house.  I had many interests but lacked the staying power and self-discipline to develop expertise or finesse.  I was highly opinionated.  Whether it was a game of Candyland or a school debate, I hated losing so much that rather than possibly win at something, I avoided all forms of competition in any subject.

Fifty-two years later, I am still all of the above!

Every person is given talents and weaknesses, good traits and bad; we were designed to be dependent on others’ talents where we are lacking so we can learn and practice give-and-take, cooperation, humility, gratitude and love.  But what if we have a natural propensity for a certain character weakness – – for example, anger, or inappropriate compulsive or immoral behavior?  Are we forever doomed, or is it possible to change negative character traits and flaws that are inherent and seemingly genetically programmed within us?

According to Jewish philosophy, using the Torah as a moral compass, it is our life’s task to overcome character flaws and to constantly strive to better ourselves.  It is no coincidence that much of the Bible reads like a soap opera; not one of the people mentioned in the Bible is free of sin or the temptation of sin; indeed their “saintliness” is more a result of the toil required in changing  and overcoming their “natural” negative traits into genuinely positive ones; growing and developing via a string of disappointments, trials, tribulations and joys, into the leaders they eventually become.  We vicariously experience their successes; equally we mourn their failures; but they are “real” so that we, too, can empathize and emulate  them and at the same time realize that positive change is not out of our reach nor impossible, no matter how formidable.

Living in Maine I have consciously and conscientiously  made several positive personal changes within myself, yet reading that nursery school report card was certainly humbling.  I still  have so far to go – – so many things to work on and improve about myself and in my interaction with others.  I realized this:  I guess, ideally, we’re never “done” and perhaps precisely this  – –  more than any other reason – –  should be our motivation for wanting to live a long life.

As I read my parents’ words and reflect on the legacies contained in the myriad of cardboard boxes, I hope that my own “stuff” will be a sort of legacy for my own children, both the good and even the baggage, from which they will grow and develop and soar.

P.S.  Still working on picking up my socks!

One response to this post.

  1. At my father’s funeral I and my siblings were shocked to learn he had been in three plane crashes. In one of them in WW II he was the sole survivor. He never said a word to us about it. I also have a diary that my mom kept on their honeymoon. What an eye-opening read. It makes me wonder what my kids will find out about me after I’m gone.

    Reply

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