On being ... one's nature?

By Ingrid Sapona

I realize the nature versus nurture debate has been raging for decades and there are mountains of evidence on both sides. Always interested in adding to scholarly discourse, I’ve been doing a self-study of the issue and, as a public service, I am devoting today’s column to my findings.

Before I dive into my conclusion, I should tell you a bit about the nature of my research. I realize a self-study in this area is unusual for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that such a study is limited to a single subject: me. But I believe the benefits of such a focused, narrow study more than outweigh its limitations.

You see, my study’s been lengthy (over four decades) and it’s been unprecedented in its scope. Because of the nature of a self-study, I’ve had what most sociologists can only dream of: uncensored access to both the inner thoughts of the study’s subject (yours truly) as well as the opportunity to witness the results of her actions. Indeed, my study’s been so exhausting -- I mean exhaustive -- that I don’t mind admitting there’ve been times over the years where I’ve found myself growing weary of making observations and analyzing behaviour. And yet, in the name of science, I’ve soldiered on.

In considering the best way of reporting my findings, I’ve decided to focus on the role of nature versus nurture with regard to one particular behaviour I realize I exhibit time-and-again: practicality. Indeed, for years I’ve considered myself imminently practical. (Admittedly, if I were to take one of those Cosmo quizzes that require you to list three words to describe yourself, “practical” might not make the cut. But, if the quiz were expanded to include just a few more descriptors, practical would certainly make the list.)

In terms of evidence regarding whether my practical nature is something I was born with or something that was nurtured through my upbringing, there’s a strong argument that nature has a lot to do with it, as many in my immediate family are quite practical. Though I don’t know if the human genome project has identified a gene linked to practicality, if there is one, I suspect the gene would have turned up in both my parents.

But, there’s also ample evidence that nurture could have played a big part in fostering my practicality. Here’s a sampling of just some of the practical behaviour that was modeled for me from a very young age: the dishes were always done immediately so that no one ever faced a sink full of dirty dishes in the morning; the minute the gas tank was half empty it would be filled up so as never to run out of gas; and winter boots always had to be the kind that would leave track marks because if the souls were flat -- or if the boot had a heel -- you were just inviting a fall. Yes, one wonders whether Freud might have used a different label to describe such behaviour, but we won’t go there…

Given that the evidence is pretty even on both sides (nature and nurture), my study has led me to the inevitable conclusion that it doesn’t matter. Whatever you are, you are and you probably can’t change that. I know that sounds like a cop out – but my study’s conclusion doesn’t end there. Instead, what I’ve realized is that separate and apart from the given behaviour, there’s room for changing the way you define that behaviour. For me this has meant that instead of simply acting in the knee-jerk practical manner that feels ever-so-natural, I’ve started seeing alternative practicalities that I hadn’t seen before.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Recently a friend had offered to help me with something on the boat. We were both coming from different directions so the practical thing to do was to simply meet there -- that way neither of us would have to go particularly out of our way and both could go directly home when we were done. Indeed, as we were discussing the plan for the day, that’s exactly what my friend suggested we do.

But, there was one snag. I hadn’t seen this friend for some time and I wanted to catch-up and chat, so the idea of taking one car -- however impractical -- appealed to me. After promising it wouldn’t take too long to do what needed to get done on the boat, we agreed to go together. As luck would have it though, our planned efficiency was soon foiled by the unusually heavy traffic. As we came to a grinding halt, I began feeling guilty that what should have been a quick trip was clearly not going to be. But, since we were together (rather than in separate cars, as originally planned), we had plenty of time to chat. Not only that, as we sat there going nowhere, we realized that our seemingly impractical decision had turned out practical from an environmental perspective, as we were only contributing pollution from one car instead of two.

That day ended up being enjoyable, productive and even relatively “green”. But more importantly, it made me decide, once and for all: nature and nurture be damned! From now on my mission is to flout traditional notions of practical and work on finding alternative “practical” justifications for behaviour that I used to avoid.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to be going. I’m going boot shopping -- I’m looking for a pair with a precariously high heel. After all, asking a gentleman to help you up from a fall is a practical way of starting a conversation…

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona