Of course, all of you of a certain age, remember the deeply insightful words of Popeye, and the title of this post, first uttered by him in 1933 and subsequently by Robin Williams as Popeye in 1980…my personal fave. Without trying to put Popeye on the couch, it is generally understood that he meant…what you see is what you get, don’t expect anything more. Not a bad proscription for us all. But what is missing is the how. How did Popeye get to be who he was? From whence cometh his sparkling personality? What about those bulging muscles…was it really the spinach? Was his mom a good looker? Did his dad go to sea?
John Locke first opined in 1690 or so that man was a “tabula rasa”. A blank tablet. A picture not yet painted, a song not yet sung. There are others, however, who take a very different point of view. Humankind has long debated whether we are most effected by “nature” or “nurture.” That is to say, are we born to be who we are, or do we become who we are by the vagaries of events washing over us?
I use this discussion as a precursor to my own on-going struggle to define myself, who I am, and how I got to be that person. Or as Popeye might have said, “who yam I?” Don’t worry. I’ll not burden you with the details of my deliberations, but I will point out some incongruities about myself that many of you, good friends, may have noticed along the way.
The most common comparison made about an individual is to one’s parents. That is part of the “nature” argument. Has my development been predisposed by the DNA that I inherited from my father, my father’s father, etc? Perhaps as we continue to untangle the mysteries of the human genome, this will become more clear, but for the present, I only know that about all I had in common with my father is that we both parted our hair on the right side. He topped out at 5′ 8″ and never weighed in at more than 125 pounds, while a basketball program from my senior year in high school lists me at 6’1″, and I passed 140 pounds about that time and never looked back until I found the shady side of 200. How can that be if nature is the determinant? Ah, it’s my mother’s DNA at work here, you say. Possibly so, as she and her siblings were all of a somewhat larger size; but which set of chromosomes win out in the struggle for physiological heredity. I vaguely remember “if you cross a tall, green tomato plant with a short purple tomato plant you get…” Well, I can’t exactly remember the outcome but tall and purple come to mind. Is this then what they mean when they say that nature is the culprit? Still sounds more like a crap shoot to me.
But it’s in the behavior dimension that I really start to diverge from my parents. My father read the local newspaper only occasionally, and my mom was a lifetime subscriber to The Reader’s Digest. That’s it. I, on the other hand, was driven to read everything and anything… from the ingredients on the Wheaties box to “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” from the aforementioned Reader’s Digest. Somewhere in the remaining detritus of my childhood, I have a certificate from the local library with the words Bookworm Club in gilt print attesting that I had read thirty-two books in my twelfth summer. I don’t want to be mean about it, but I’m pretty sure the my wonderful parents, together, did not read thirty-two books. They did a lot of other really good things, but reading wasn’t one of them. Why then am I an inveterate reader? And a corollary to that is, why do I care so little about what I read? Go figure.
My dad was a decorated side door gunner on B-26’s in WWII. He flew more than his share of missions and had more than his share of kills – but I never saw him angry. I never saw him in a confrontation with anyone over anything. Well, he and my mom did fight every now and then, but that was most often about what bills to not pay each month. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I must have missed those genes, for my childhood was marked by far too many bloody noses. And my darling wife S. will testify to my inclination to get pushy with lethargic waitresses, and I’m often outraged by the rude, unsafe driver in the neighborhood.
My father’s personal ethos was shaped by an overarching concern about “what others would think about us”. No, I can’t explain it, but I suspect that, in part, he was motivated by having lost his own father at an early age and being guided by a single mom and three older sisters. I, on the other hand, always had two parents and, being the eldest of five siblings, was more or less ensconced in the king of the roost position in the familial pecking order. Is this nature or nurture? I dunno, maybe it’s both. I do know that for whatever reason I have been driven to be first in whatever I did. Note, I did not say best, but first. There’s a difference of course. First to finish the test, first in the lunchroom line, first to answer the question (whether I knew the answer or not), first to opine on the unknowable, first to order the new iPhone, and, often, first to the finish line however defined. I didn’t just want to be the first chosen, I wanted to be the one doing the choosing, and yes, I wanted to choose first. I will admit that this characteristic could be a serious flaw, but the point is that I’m equally sure that I didn’t get it from my parents.
My parents were not political, nor did they espouse any particular political philosophy. I never heard them praise or castigate the president, the mayor our even their boss. I must admit to having strong positions on things political. Well, to be honest, I always felt it was a virtue to have strong opinions on pretty much everything. As the man said, “If we’re going to proceed on the basis of opinion, I’d rather it be my own.” How is it, then, that I have become a political progressive (some would say “wild-eyed liberal”) in the midst of my eighth decade on this planet. My first political recollection is of a bumper sticker which proclaimed “Democrats for Ike.” I was nine and knew nada about Democrats or Ike, but I liked the sound of it. A foot in each camp so to speak. This attitude has more or less defined my political consciousness and activity until fairly recently. As a high schooler I was youth chairman for Ed Mesvinsky’s [(D) Iowa] first run for political office. He lost that race. Surely you remember Ed. He was the most junior of the legislators on the Watergate Committee, was convicted of felony fraud and spent five years in the federal pokey. Oh, he is also known as the father-in-law of Chelsea Mesvinsky, nee Clinton. So you see my political career was off to an uneven start. Later that year, I was elected as a junior delegate to the Iowa State Republican Convention. So you see, this was not political philosophy, this was politics dexterity tinged by personal ambition.
I voted for LBJ in ’64…still one of my faves for reasons that don’t need discussion here… but reversed my field in ’68 and ’72 and went with Tricky Dick. I doubled back in ’76 and voted for Carter (which I came to regret), and found comfort with Reagan in ’80. I thought we needed a national cheerleader, and he fit the bill. In ’84 I could not vote for Mondale and the same for Dukakis in ’88. Yes, I did vote for a Bush. By ’92 I had come to my senses. It was the Dems from then on. I used to worry about my zigzag record of presidential votes, but I ultimately justified them to myself by thinking I was voting for the person, not a political philosophy. That’s the only excuse I can come up with. But by the time Clinton ran and won in ’92 (no, I did not vote for my then boss, Ross Perot), I had finally arrived at a more or less political/social/economic philosophy that guided me. The point of this overlong explanation is that my political path had absolutely nothing to do with “nature”. It was nurture all the way. I was pushed and pulled by the events of my life, the world around me, and my inquiry into their causes. I’m comfortable with where that has found me.
My religious education was fairly typical and fairly rigorous. It has its roots in the fundamentalism of the southern Church (most often Baptist) of my mother, and perhaps conditioned somewhat by the fact that my father grew up Catholic but converted to Southern Baptist to satisfy the demands of my mother and the Southern Baptist church. I was at church whenever the doors were open. Sunday school, training union, Sunday services morning and night, Wednesday Royal Ambassadors and prayer meeting, Thursday choir practice, and on, and on, and on. I learned all of the books of the Bible, could quote scripture at the drop of a hat, and I could recite all of the bible “stories” from memory. All before I reached puberty. This was religion by “nurture” at its finest. No thinking required. Exposing children to a single religious world view has tended to work really well on generations of children and has been accepted practice of parents around the world. But for me, well, I guess I wasn’t really paying that much attention.
And then I started to ask questions. I had my first substantive conversation about religion with my mother in the summer of my freshman year of college. She had asked if I was going to church. I gulped hard and said no, and that the reason was that I no longer believed in God, the Bible, or the teachings of the church, and that it would be hypocritical to go to church with those beliefs. She, not surprisingly, reacted as if I had just confessed to mass murder. In the course of the painful conversation that ensued, the depth of her belief and the foundation of my unbelief slowly revealed itself. She believed in a literal heaven and hell, and knew for sure the path to each. She was certain that Jonah did survive in the belly of the whale and that the Earth was, indeed, created in six (or seven) twenty-four hour periods. I, on the other hand, had only questions, but even the questions tended toward uncertainty and ultimately disbelief. No nature there. This acorn fell pretty far from the family religious tree.
So, my conclusion on the nature vs nurture argument is “I yam what I yam.” I dunno exactly how I got here, but it probably involved a dollop of genetics with a wallop of experience. It still doesn’t completely explain why I get a lump in my throat when I watch one of my grandchildren have a success, or why it took me sixty years to fully enjoy the wonder of a sunrise or sunset. It doesn’t account for my yearning to leave things better than I found them or why I still get a thrill out of sinking a jump shot. It doesn’t explain why my darling S has put up with me for fifty-two years while most relationships don’t endure nearly that long. I’d like to know why I couldn’t hit a curve ball, but I could read the small print on the Post Toasties box when I was five. I think there must be a missing secret sauce. Something that combines with nature/nurture to make us who we are. I’m going to name it even though I can’t exactly define it…it’s individualization. All of us take on board all the nature and nurture we can handle…it’s a different formula for each of us. We proceed with life, from the cradle to the grave, and in the process we become the unique creatures that we are. We become individualized. Thus, here I “yam” for better or worse:
…a tallish male of the species who no longer retains the leaness of youth
…who always wants to start, and hopes to finish, first
…who had the good fortune to engage in a life long partnership with a wonderful woman who could remind me of my shortcomings without anger
…who wants to know something about everything, but does not take the time to study anything in the depth required to become an expert
…who loves being around people but not too closely
…who has many acquaintances but only a few lifelong friends
…who eschews the supernatural, but cherishes nature
…who is still confused about the natural order of things, but continues to search
…who has just enough humility and experience to know that there are many, if not most, who know more that he does, and the corollary that no matter how good one is at anything, there is someone nearby who is better.
…who believes that doing good is its own reward
…who knows for certain that making mistakes is an important part of human growth, and that fear of failure can only increase the certainty of failure
If Popeye were around today, I’m sure he would advise that I’m getting dangerously close to overthinking this and becoming maudlin to boot. So let’s leave it at that.
I yam, indeed, what I yam. And a happy yam at that.
PS. All yams are not alike