Are We Born, Are We Bred, or Do We Make Ourselves?

“When visiting the nature versus nurture debate, there is overwhelming evidence that both genetic and environmental factors can influence traits and diseases.”

So concluded researchers from Australia and the Netherlands after reviewing 50 years of studies and millions of cases.  “One of the great tussles of science – whether our health is governed by nature or nurture – has been settled, and it is effectively a draw.”

Without impugning the value of scientific studies, it’s hard not to wonder at the amount of time and effort scientists often invest to prove what most thinking people have already figured out for themselves.

“The findings, published in Nature Genetics, reveal on average the variation for human traits [is] 49 per cent genetic, and 51 per cent [environment].”

Stop the presses.  Film at eleven.

But even the obvious conclusion that personality is determined equally by genetics and by environment misses a larger point.  

Anyone who has ever known a pair of identical twins will tell you how remarkably different they can be.  And this raises an even more obvious question:  when you have identical nature and nurture, shouldn’t twins turn out virtually identical inside as well as out?

The inescapable answer comes from a place where most scientists will never go:  identical twins provide one of the most compelling proofs for the existence of the human soul.  With every reason to be the same, what else can explain such pronounced disparity?

Ultimately, it is not how we are made that defines us.  Rather, it’s the effort we put into developing our abilities and making the most of the opportunities that come our way.

Every human being is created with unique talents and given unique opportunities in order to fulfill a singular purpose.  No two of us  are the same because no one of us has the same earthly mission as any other one.  It may take a lifetime to recognize what that mission is, but that itself is part of why we’re here.

If we try to do everything, we end up accomplishing nothing.  If we chase impossible dreams, we end up with boundless disappointment.  Either way, the world will go on without us.  But what will we have made of our lives?

By accepting what we have, making the most of what we’ve been given, and choosing wisely which doors to open and which to leave closed, we cannot help but grow into the people we are meant to become.

To that end, we need to constantly ask ourselves three questions:

What am I good at?  My natural talents and abilities are the most reliable indicator of what I am meant to achieve.

What do I enjoy?  I might be gifted at math, but if I find mathematics dry and uninspiring then I’m unlikely to make a successful mathematician.  We have to like what we do in order to do it really well.

Where’s the payoff?  Not every pursuit is practical.  I might be a great poet, but if I want to earn a living poetry may not be the wisest choice of careers.  I might be really good a baseball, but am I good enough to make it out of — or even into — the minor leagues?  Then again, sometimes the reward of following my passion will be enough to sustain me even if I never achieve success in the eyes of others.

Where the answers to these three questions intersect is where I’m likely to find personal fulfillment.  But even after all this, there’s one more factor:  timing.

Christopher Paolini published his bestselling novel Eragon at age 19.  Frank McCourt published his Pulitzer Prize Winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes, at age 66.  We never know when our time will come, so we have to be prepared for it whenever it arrives — whether it’s around the next corner or across the ocean.

My teacher, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach of blessed memory, used to muse how wonderful it would be if life had background music.  Wouldn’t it be convenient if some quickening tempo or surging theme from above would tip us off to the urgency of an approaching moment?

But life is more complicated than the movies.  So we have to listen for the music that comes from inside, from the melody of our souls.  

We have to be constantly alert, both to our internal makeup and to the constantly shifting sands of time and opportunity.  We can’t blame our genes or our luck, and we dare not rely on talent alone.  Each of us walks this earth on a path to the unique destiny of our own individual souls.

By following that path and by seizing opportunities as they present themselves, we can determine who we really are throughout the length of our days and experience the ultimate reward of success and happiness that lies ever within our reach .

Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures.   His new book Proverbial Beauty:  Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.


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