There’s an old debate that gets rehashed every so often. In modern terms, it’s the debate between nature and nurture. In old political philosophy, the question was whether or not we are born as blank slates on which can be written whatever the world decides. To the best of my knowledge, the empirical evidence suggests that this old conversation is shaded and coloured by a great many variables. In other words, sometimes it’s nature, sometimes it’s nurture, and being one or the other will depend on the person and the context.
In terms of how we live our day to day lives, though, I suspect that we undervalue the nurture side of the equation. In a certain way, this makes sense. We experience ourselves and our lives through the limited window of our senses and perspectives. We think of the world as existing outside of ourselves, and we don’t very often, or ever, have an experience where we feel ourselves being deeply changed by something outside ourselves. My suspicion is that this leaves us feeling mostly like objective observers who can draw conclusions about the world around while being unaltered by it.
But of course, we’re wrong. We’re not necessarily wrong about all of the things we might say about the world, but we can’t, with any integrity at least, claim that we’re untouched by what happens around us. The physical and emotional impact of our experiences is written on our bodies and in our behaviour. It is an interesting and useful question to ask what part of who we are is nature and what part is nurture. I can wrestle with the question of whether I’ve always loved dogs or if it’s only because I’ve met enough to fall in love with them. The theoretical question matters and the neuroscientists and psychiatrists of the world are doing important work as they figure it out.
But maybe the more important question for our daily movement through God’s world is what part of ourselves is only possible because of the person in front of us, at this very moment? Not a theoretical question, but a practical one about how this person in front of me is shaping me. And not just about people, but about what part of myself is possible only because of the blue sky, or the piece of music, or the math equation, or the smell of coffee. In other words, what part of me is possible because of this moment’s experience? What is it about you that makes it possible for me to be me?
And if I can ask that question., maybe I can ask myself how I’m making it possible for you to be you?