Nature or nurture?

npr.org

npr.org

The literary world is abuzz at the memoir of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her book My Beloved World chronicles her early life in the Bronx as a part of a close-knit but troubled family. Her dad was alcoholic and died when Sotomayor was 8 years old, the same year she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Her mom struggled to open herself up to happiness after a tumultuous marriage, and Sotomayor faced difficulties as a young Latina with big aspirations.

I’ve just started reading Sotomayor’s book, and already I’m hooked. In an interview with O Magazine, Oprah asked Sotomayor about a question that Sotomayor raises in her book: How is it that some people are faced with adversity and it makes them want to rise to the highest part of themselves, and other people, faced with the same adversity, get knocked down. Is that nature or nurture?

I’ve often wondered this myself, and never more than I have while enduring the cancer “journey.” What is it that makes some people wither under the strain of the disease, while others adopt a “take no prisoners” attitude and commence with the ass-kicking?

Sotomayer’s answer is not driven by cancer, but what she says applies to pretty much any adversity that comes along. She says that people who have been nurtured, presumably as young children by loving and involved parents, have the confidence to be optimistic and to try things even when there’s a risk of failure. She says “The test of your character is how often you get up and try again.”

I can only speak for my own experience, which was a Cracker-Jack idyll of childhood in a loving home with parents who believed in me and instilled confidence and optimism. Is this why I was able to face my cancer diagnosis head-on and without taking to my bed with covers pulled tight over my head?

I dunno.

Was it a by-product of my childhood, or was it from watching my mom endure her own cancer “journey” without a shred of self-pity? Even though her “journey” was a bazillion times harder and more trying than mine has been, she never once complained or said “I can’t do this any more.” She did every single thing required of her, even when her body was giving her every reason not to, and she did it quietly and stoically. The disease prevailed in the end, claiming her life and robbing her legions of loved ones of her presence, but she put up a hell of a fight.

There’s been nothing quiet or stoic about my “journey,” and many times I could imagine my sweet mama chiding me for expressing my frustration so vocally and with so many curse words. Many times I heard her voice in my ear reminding me to be patient with the slower-than-molasses healing. Many times I felt her gentle reminder to go easy on my docs, who were doing their best to help me (and if she were around, she would have baked them a loaf of bread or a batch of kourambiethes as a peace offering for the not-so-nice way I vented my frustrations in their offices).

I wish my sweet mama were here now, so I could ask her opinion of the nature-vs-nurture question. I think she would relate to Sotomayor on many levels. I know she would downplay the enormous gift she gave me by being a loving, nurturing, involved parent by telling me that it’s just what you do. And I’m pretty sure she would boss me and tell me to allow my kids to have dessert more often, because they need a treat.

Despite my sweet mama’s undeniable effect on my life, I don’t feel especially confident or optimistic these days. While the worst of the cancer “journey” is behind me, the toll it’s taken on my sense of self is great. The reality of creating a life after cancer isn’t easy, with body issues and fear of recurrence being key players. My hormone-blocking BFF, Tamoxifen, wreaks untold havoc on my body and has aged me at an alarmingly accelerated pace. The rigors of check-ups, follow-ups, and scans for new cancerous activity are wearying. The uncertainty of why a group of cells went haywire in an otherwise healthy body is unnerving and serves as a reminder that nothing is a sure thing: you can eat right, exercise, and be pro-active about your health and still fall victim to cancer. It’s not fair, it’s not right, yet there it is.

Perhaps this is a commonality the befalls those of us on this “journey” — like moving through the stages of grief. Perhaps it’s normal that at a certain point, after cancer is no longer the main focus of the majority of our waking hours, we realize how crazy hard the whole thing was and still is. Perhaps instead of being left with a sense of pride in having survived the worst-case scenario, we realize it’s a hollow victory. Perhaps once the adrenaline wears off, we’re left with the dull thud of reality saying, “You survived the worst, now whatcha gonna do?” As I’ve written before, perhaps the soul-crushing depression about the “new normal” that follows a cancer “journey”  is what we’re left with when it’s all said and done. Add all of this to the confusion over whether we dodged a bullet by surviving or were dealt a direct hit right between the eyes by being diagnosed in the first place; then throw in a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt; and heap on the searing realization that all we endured is a walk in the park compared to other people’s “journey.” Considering all of this, it makes me wonder how anyone can rise to the highest part of themselves rather than being knocked down by adversity. Although I’m not sure how it’s done, I’m certainly glad Sonia Sotomayor raised the issue.


12 Comments on “Nature or nurture?”

  1. David Benbow says:

    I’ve spent years pondering the whole nature/nurture debate. My bad-seed brother and I shared the same genes and same upbringing, but went in two very different directions in life. All I can say for sure is that we’re each a unique blend of the genetics we’re given and the circumstances we encounter. Some people have the health, wealth, or chutzpah to deal with it and others need help. I’m glad that you had the tools you needed to deal with your own situation and that you still use them to help others.

    • Some have what they need and others need help. Nicely put. I’m not sure what I’m doing that helps others, considering that the main function of my blog posts are to allow me to vent and get the icky thoughts out of my head, but thanks for the nod.

  2. Eddie says:

    You raise a truly difficult issue. When we laud a cancer survivor for the battle they wage, do we implicitly criticize those who succumb for not having a strong enough will to defeat cancer? Are we unfortunate when bad things happen to us, or fortunate it’s not worse? Does that fact that someone else is suffering greater difficulties somehow make our own troubles less?

    • mmr says:

      Thanks, Eddie, for succintly saying something I have questioned many times after my own journey. I used to wear a wristband that said “I am stronger than cancer”. Then one day I looked at it and thought about a wonderful neighbor who fought an incredibly hard battle against his cancer, but still died. I am certainly not stronger than he was, I am just more fortunate that the doctors caught mine at an earlier stage. I am still friends with that man’s widow, and I wonder if it would hurt her to see something like that wristband and what it might imply to her, so I will never wear it again.

      • So true, Ed. In fact, I bristled every time I used the word “survive/survivor” in this post, as I do every time I write, bc it’s just so random that I prevailed over my cancer while others do not. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the implicit message that one who dies from cancer didn’t fight hard enough, wasn’t brave enough, or didn’t try everything they could. As for whether we’re unfortunate when bad things happen or fortunate that it’s not worse, and the comparative scale of suffering…I don’t know. Some days it would be easy to be angry and resentful; is it just as easy to be positive? Again, I don’t know. Maybe you need to write a guest post on this topic.

      • Marcie, I know exactly what you mean. So much of this cancer business is random luck, which is more terrifying than anything. I envision the evil cancer gods rolling a dice or shooting a dart at a list of names and whoever they hit gets it bad.

  3. Trevor Hicks says:

    I wonder what’s more difficult for you to cope with, the “new normal” or the fact that it’s totally unfair that you have to cope with a new normal. You don’t like to let even the most minor injustices go uncorrected or ignored. But where’s the complaint desk for a faulty breast that tries to kill you? The refund and exchange policy on those sucks.

    Regardless, Team Nancy, whether online or in meatspace, is behind you and we’re going to help you however we can.

    • “meatspace” — gross.
      I can wrap my head around coping with the new normal. It’s not fair, it’s not my choice, and it’s not what I want, but that’s life and I’m a big girl. I can deal with the unfairness, too, bc again, that’s life, and as you know, I was raised to never for a second believe that life should be or will be fair. What I can’t wrap my head around and cope with is the idea that after going through hell, this is as good as it gets. Not that I expect a prize (or even to end up the same as before), but it’s completely sucky to know that this is what I’ve got to deal with for the rest of my life.

  4. A very thought provoking post as usual. The way I see it now, the “journey” never ends. Although I am trying to put the whole experience behind me, it seems that the cancer is always there, just nipping at my heels. Case in point: yesterday I called my Oncologist demanding a bone scan, convinced that I had bone mets……only to realize that I had hurt my shoulder while shoveling snow. That’s my new normal. Despite this, I am determined to keep going, and every time the beast knocks me on my arse, (as it did yesterday, filling me with fear )I will get up again! Nature or Nurture? I dunno.
    http://www.perksofcancer.com

  5. Wendy Langley says:

    I realize that some of this post was a vent, but the answer is always nature and nurture. Too many situations between siblings and people in same situations prove it. Bottom line is that you are what who you are and you get some earned and unearned things. Regardless, you must deal with it. Your Sweet Mama taught you that it is better to stand up and fight than lay down and whine. She was right. Keep teaching it to Payton and Macy.

  6. Perhaps this is a commonality the befalls those of us on this “journey” — like moving through the stages of grief. Perhaps it’s normal that at a certain point, after cancer is no longer the main focus of the majority of our waking hours, we realize how crazy hard the whole thing was and still is. Perhaps instead of being left with a sense of pride in having survived the worst-case scenario, we realize it’s a hollow victory. Perhaps once the adrenaline wears off, we’re left with the dull thud of reality saying, “You survived the worst, now whatcha gonna do?” As I’ve written before , perhaps the soul-crushing depression about the “new normal” that follows a cancer “journey” is what we’re left with when it’s all said and done. Add all of this to the confusion over whether we dodged a bullet by surviving or were dealt a direct hit right between the eyes by being diagnosed in the first place; then throw in a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt; and heap on the searing realization that all we endured is a walk in the park compared to other people’s “journey.” Considering all of this, it makes me wonder how anyone can rise to the highest part of themselves rather than being knocked down by adversity. Although I’m not sure how it’s done, I’m certainly glad Sonia Sotomayor raised the issue.


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