What Are You Made of?

Posted on November 5, 2016


We all know that little boys are made of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” while little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

In today’s progressive, politically correct world those stereotypes are of course sexist, demeaning, and probably misogynist as well. How dare we characterize male and females so differently? The girls will be impaired for life and boys turn into bullies and worse.

We are made up of many parts, but social scientists have narrowed it down to two basic sources: nature or nurture. Or stated another way, we are made up of number one, our genes, and, number two, the background of our lives, or how and where we grow up, the environment

A new book by J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, addresses this straight on, kind of painfully in some of the narrative as the author writes of growing up poor first in Kentucky and then in Ohio where so many “hillbillies” moved to find work. He never really answers the question satisfactorily: am I principally the product of my genes, my DNA, or am I a product of my environment, in J.D.’s case growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family. He is, in fact, a product of both, and he only hints towards the end of his book to a third factor, which he may have been a bit embarrassed to bring up front and center.

Recently I’ve piecing together some remembrances and the exercise has brought me back in touch with who I am and how I became who I am. We all do it.

Some are spectacularly successful at writing memoirs or memories of their past. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-450 A.D.), one of the greatest of church theologians, wrote his Confessions, considered to be the first true autobiography in Western letters. He bares his soul but also ponders on some of the great issues of life, such as the nature of man, causality, and free will.

For those of you whose ancestors walked or rode down the trails from Virginia to the Carolinas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you might want to try an old classic, Ben Robertson’s Red Hills and Cotton: An Upcountry Memory about the piedmont of South Carolina. Ben was a cracker jack newspaperman who graduated from Clemson in 1923. He was killed in an airplane accident while traveling to London in 1942 as a war correspondent for the Herald Tribune.

He wrote with immense feeling for his people and his world, reflecting their values of the 1930s, unflinchingly honest but with much love and sympathy for those who went through the Depression and survived, largely because of their values.

I have often heard and read that those who went through the Great Depression were scarred by that economic and cultural disaster that befell the land in the 1930s. Certainly the environment of no employment, forced transience, almost endemic poverty, hunger, and desperation helped form them, but there is another ingredient at work here, apart from nature and nurture.

I have not studied what Christians heard from their pulpits in the 1930s but the message has always been one of hope and restoration if one abides in God’s will. Try Isaiah 43:1-3 for starters.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pretty certain after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that the U. S. would, with God, prevail.

“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory…. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.

So, what are we made of? We certainly are products of our culture—nurture– and nature. But it also comes from a deep faith in our God. Absent that, and you throw yourself back on the will and nature of man, sometimes good and sometimes evil. God, on the other hand, is always good. Romans 8:23 and Jeremiah 29:11 certainly must have sustained our grandparents and great grandparents during the Depression.

D. Vance also spent four formative years in the Marine Corps, adding proof to the nurture/culture/environment supporters. He might have been born with good genes—he eventually finished Law School at Yale—but he gives the Marine Corps, his grandmother, “Mawmaw,” and God a lot of credit in traveling the long road from hillbilly to success.

Published as “Nature, Nurture and God” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday September 18, 2016.