The question of nature vs. nurture has been a longstanding battle in my family – I hold more to the belief that people are heavily affected by their surroundings, while my brother insists behavior is largely determined by genetics.
Conversations I’ve had with my parents over the last few years have made me wonder how much of me is comprised of them, and why. I can attribute our similar musical tastes to the fact that they shared an enjoyment of the same music my mother later played from CDs during my first 10 years, leaving me with fond memories and associations with their favorites.
Other things are a little hard to explain. For instance, it wasn’t until I ended up in the psych ward with a bleeding wrist and a blank expression that both my parents started admitting that we had more in common than had previously been brought up.
I’ve scoured my childhood, and I can say with fair authority that there is no reason for me to be as screwed up as I am. Some of it I brought on myself (I was a very curious child with a fast-maturing brain and an Internet connection), but some things just have no reason to be here.
My father and I are both very angry people. We don’t live our lives in misery, we can be perfectly happy, polite, witty, well-adjusted people for the most part, but there are times when I am hit with the most intense, bone-deep RAGE like I’m transforming from a person into a volcano, and I know he feels the same way, and neither of us really know WHY.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d grown up differently, if I’d gone to a public school, if I’d put away the laptop more often, if I’d lived in a different house or a different town or a different religion, and it all keeps coming back to the fact that I was brought up in a way that, if genetics don’t affect things, should have left me calm, secure, and patient. I never in my life doubted I was loved and safe, I spent my time reading and writing, school involved more climbing waterfalls and going to museums than tests and multiplication, punishments were a stern lecture and once or twice a light swat to reinforce “don’t bite your sister’s nose off.” My concept of pain was jumping off a swing a little bit late and twisting an ankle, my concept of fear was Shyamalan’s The Village (SHUT UP that movie is terrifying when you’re seven).
I won’t say my childhood had no effect on me, on the contrary, it drastically changed the way I reacted to the explosive bursts of anger. If I had grown up with fighting parents, apathetic teachers, violent/abusive family members, severe punishments… If I had been surrounded with fear, anger, pain, or resentment, I have no doubt I would have committed at least one felony by now. I’d probably be smart enough not to be in prison for it, but if I hadn’t learned control from an early age, I would have exploded by now.
My control isn’t built on discipline, it’s not rigid and brittle. In a military family I probably would have become scrupulously good at covering my tracks, but that’s as far as a strict regimen of self-control could take me.
My control is based on what I saw from numerous places as a child: other people’s feelings are just as important as mine. If I said something rude or hurtful to another person, my mother wouldn’t just issue a reprimand and an order to be respectful, she would explain how that made the other person feel, and help me to see how I would have felt in the opposite situation. She would tell me if she was hurt or offended by someone I said. She impressed on me when I was young that adults can feel sad, lonely, or confused, which I don’t think is shown very often to children – so many adults just convert that feeling into “well that little brat” and be angry about it instead.
I was also shaped quite powerfully by books. At five or six, I would happily sit on the couch and haltingly read aloud from the Chronicles of Narnia books, stopping and asking my mother when I hit a word I didn’t understand (on a side note, there is a grand total of one swearword in that series, and I found it almost immediately).
Books were very important to my development because they gave me a perspective hard to come by when you’re young: the idea that everyone else is thinking and feeling, just like me, all the time. Books gave me a chance to live someone else’s life, to see into their heads and be happy or angry or sad right along with them. Empathy has always been a part of me because I was never isolated in my own mind, never locked in one body or a single pair of eyes.
And so, though I have been hit with many powerful waves of rage over the years, I have never once slapped, punched, kicked, or otherwise hurt anyone. I’ve shouted, I’ve had my share of violent thoughts and daydreams, I’ve locked myself in my room and listened to loud music, I’ve beaten the shit out of pillows and trees, I’ve cried and scribbled in journals and watched tv to forget about everything, but I’ve never hurt anyone. THAT, I can say for sure, is a product of my upbringing.
(Incidentally, a lot of the anger went toward protecting the people around me, also a side effect of the empathy. I still can’t watch or read news reports about injustices, corruption, or abuse of power, because I start getting into a Dextrous mindset and a more righteous fury starts up, which in the end doesn’t do anything but drag me into that pit again.)
Our pasts don’t determine everything about us, but they’re a strong influence on how we deal with the things we can’t control. My overly-curious nature took my genetic tendency toward OCD and blew it up into a huge problem, but my intense sense of empathy has made me an essentially good person after everything.
I’m going back to Walking Dead now.