Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How unique is too unique?

Today I'm memeless, but still in a posty mood. I think I'm about to ramble (and ramble) in generalities. Feel free to skip this entry. (g)

Most of us don't want to be completely lost in the crowd. We want to stand out-- but only to a certain degree. We want to be recognized as a unique individual with specific personality traits, talents, and abilities. Some of us even feel that being known for our foibles (or more serious faults) is better than entirely blending in.

But on the other side of the coin, we (as a whole, not particularly all of us) are, at worst, extremely harsh toward anyone who doesn't "fit in". At best, we can't help but at least notice that they don't fit in, and we probably treat them differently because of that, even if we don't mean to do so.

I assume that most of you are familiar with the game show known as "Family Feud"? If not, here's a brief explanation: The idea of the game is that to win points by giving the most common/popular responses to different questions. The show has surveyed 100 people for each question to determine the relative popularity of the answers. In order to win, you have to think like other people-- or at least know how other people think. (There is a difference, by the way.) At some point in my youth, I was torn between wanting to "win" along with the contestants by giving the most popular answer-- and sometimes wondering what it said about me if I were able to win. At what point are you no longer just"fitting in"-- knowing your stuff about what other people think-- and simply ceasing to be a unique personality?

Doesn't the latest research indicate that some of our basic personality traits are determined genetically? Of course we are shaped by the events of our lives and the people we encounter along the way, but how much of who we are is predetermined? Should we take any more pride in (or credit for) our personalities-- talents-- ambitions-- than we should take for our natural hair color or our shoe size?

My "answer" (for the moment): As for our talents, no, we can't take much credit for that. Just as some of us are born with superior bodies, others are born with superior minds-- or a voice that sings more beautifully than average-- or an eye for drawing, etc. These things are blessings, if you like-- or if you're less religiously inclined, mere flukes-- "winning tickets" in the world of DNA. It is what we do with our individual gifts that we can take pride in-- using them for good, working hard to improve upon what we have, and having courage when dealing with our weaknesses.

But-- if our genes determine our basic personality traits, how much credit can we take even for our behavior?

Consider this scenario: Rob is born with an amazing talent for art. He shows great promise as a child, and by the time he's an adult, he's a successful artist. Steve is born with just average artistic ability. His people are all stick figures; he'll never be famous for his art. Can Rob really take more credit for his artistic ability than Steve can for his? I'd imagine that most would answer "no"-- no more than a tall person can take more "credit" for his height than a short person can.

Now, what about this scenario? Sarah is born with a healthy dose of ambition and carries it through to success. Driven by her ambitious nature, she works hard and does very well for herself. Betty, on the other hand, is born without much ambition. She isn't driven to succeed, so she'll never reach the heights Sarah's seen. She works just as much as she has to-- no more. Is Sarah's success any more to her credit than Betty's "just getting by"? Yes, she's worked harder, but that's at least partly because she was born with something in her personality that drives her to work. Does the fact that Sarah is driven to succeed make her any worthier than "go with the flow" Betty?

(Obviously, whether or not Sarah "deserves" more credit, she will reap the fruits of her labors. She'll be financially secure, admired/envied by others, and probably somewhat powerful. There's no debating that; it's the way the world works, after all, and possibly Sarah's example will inspire Betty to work harder than she would if surrounded by only people with her own laid back personality. The question is less practical and more philosophical.)

Is it genetically easier for some people to "be good" and do well in life? How much credit or blame do we deserve, if we're born with our basic personality traits? Is lazy Betty-- born without much natural ambition-- to be blamed more than the artistically challenged "stick-figure Steve"? (Maybe this is why we are told not to judge. Too bad it's so hard not to judge!!)

Carry it another step further-- How much of criminal behavior is based as on genetic predisposition as opposed to training (or the lack thereof) and situation (growing up in a place where criminality is common or even accepted)? Supposedly, some murderers and others with antisocial personality disorders are born without a conscience. They lack the ability to empathize-- to imagine how other people and creatures are feeling-- and this makes it possible for them to do horrible things that most of us couldn't imagine doing. If this is true-- if a person is born without the ability to see that something is terribly wrong-- if their only indication of it being wrong is that other people say "don't do it"-- how much blame do they bear for what they do? (The same questions raised by the old "it's a sickness" argument.)

I won't pretend to know the answer to that. I feel that however much our genes impact our behavior or determine who we are, we are still responsible for what we do with what we're given. We must do our best, but what "our best" is will probably vary somewhat from person to person. Some of us may have to work harder to be what we ought to be, but that doesn't give us an excuse to not behave in the way we know to be right. As for those who are born with such skewed perceptions as to not know what is right. . . if that's ever even truly the case. . . I don't know what we're supposed to do with them. My gut reaction is to banish them from our presence-- i.e. kill them, or at the very least condemn them to a life sentence in prison. But I have to admit that I'm not sure that's what God would want. I'm pretty sure that if someone purposely hurt someone I knew and cared about, my first impulse would be for revenge, whether or not it was right. (Hey, can't get much more honest than that, can you?)

Anyway. . .
As I wrote before, these are just philosophical ponderings. I'm definitely not trying to say that I think something along the lines of "we're all born one way or another-- we have no control over it-- so the concepts of right and wrong are archaic, and it's cruel to punish someone for being 'different'". Not at all!! I think that if there's a genetic component to our personalities (as it seems increasingly evident that there is), it's just interesting-- but we're still individually responsible for our actions. It may help explain a little more clearly why God instructs us to keep an eye on our own thoughts and actions and leave him to be the judge of all others. Maybe we don't know the whole story-- not merely the story of the events in the other person's life, but also the story of what s/he was given to work with.

I also don't advocate the opinion that, if some of us are born with greater ambition and/or abilities than others, it's inherently unfair that people earn different amounts of money, power, and prestige based on their individual gifts. For one thing, who's going to decide how to more fairly distribute those things? (I'd rather leave it up to the DNA lottery, myself. That's how much faith I have in my fellow man to do a better job!) For another-- how many times have we heard of immensely gifted people who still manage to make an utter mess of their lives? Things are just too infinitely complicated for us mere mortals to figure them out, however intelligent some of us may believe we are. ;o)

And to think, this all started because I was annoyed by an article's recommendation that you not give your dog a "popular" name. Come on, it's a dog!! What's the big deal? Don't give him a common name-- but you don't want a name that's too far out there, either!! It's a very delicate balance! Ok, maybe it could be annoying to give your dog a very common name if you're always taking her to dog parks or other places where you might call your dog and end up with twenty other pooches by the same name. For those of us who will never be in that situation, it seems pretty low on the list of things to worry about.

Both my dogs have very popular names-- or at least they have been in recent years-- but we just chose them at random. So how does that happen? Kind of weird, but you see it with kids' names, too. I've heard that "old-fashioned" names come back into style after a few generations. Something about names from the grandparents' generation seeming "out-dated", but those from another generation back seeming new again. My own grandparents' names don't seem very out-dated to me, but when I think of some of their sibling's names. . . Yes, some of those might feel a little old-fashioned. Not that they're bad names, but I have a hard time picturing a child with those names. An older person comes to mind, instead.

Ok, that's much more than enough rambling for one day. I'm not sure how much housecleaning ambition I was born with, but today I need to scrape together as much of it as I can. ;o)