Nature and Nurture Versus Changing Ourselves

As sometimes happens on ‘teh internets’, a ghost from childhood contacted me the other day. A surprising one. A couple of years older than I, he had never particularly liked having me tag along. Ridiculously anxious to please him, I imitated as much about him as I could—and listened to his lies, never objecting, even when I knew they were lies.

Which was often.

I didn’t know how to react, at that age, when my hero lied to me, so did nothing more than smile and nod. There was the constant bragging, the recounting of exploits. A few may even have been true. But I knew, on some level, that many had never happened—yet I listened with a kind of awe.

When he disappeared from my life, I think I was a little relieved. Certainly, I made no attempt to keep in touch with him.

After the first email from him last week, I did a little searching. I quickly discovered that he was not like most of the old friends and acquaintances that the Web drops on one unexpectedly.

A few years ago, he’d been arrested for fraud, pleaded guilty, and served time.

When I asked about it, he emailed back:

Don’t believe what you read. 1st they report I was sentenced to 16 months . Not true.  I only did 8 months at club fed.  They said it was a 30 million dollar thing but it was 60 the hedge fund did not want the truth out so they lied. I only had to pay $300,000.  I made over 5 million .   You do the math.

Completely flummoxed (just as I’d often been as a kid), unable to respond with any true feelings, I sent back this:

I’m not one to pass judgment, for I know nothing about it.  But I am glad it is over for you.  I hope things are going a lot more smoothly.

Frankly, I also hope I don’t hear from him again.  I was relieved to lose him once before; I will be relieved again, today.

Why, you may ask, did his email bother me so much?  Good question.

It’s not that he’s been to prison. Lots of people have. It’s that he doesn’t seem to have changed, to have grown up at all. He’s still manipulating truth, playing with people’s attitudes today just as he did oh, so many years ago.

“Don’t believe what you read.” We’ve come to distrust the press, and it is easy to use that to cloud discussion of events reported—it’s something that a good liar makes use of. I don’t believe everything I read in the paper, but I don’t disbelieve it all, either. In this case, I suspect he was sentenced to 16 months, serving eight. Notice that he changes “sentenced” to “did”…. The two, of course, are not the same thing. This is the type of switch a good prevaricator makes use of.  Maybe, because of the past, my antennae are particularly attuned to the possibility of lies from him… but I don’t think that’s all of it.

Furthermore, the articles I read said nothing about the size of any hedge fund. The only reason I can think he mentioned it is to inflate his own importance and to deflate the perception of damage done (five million is a much smaller percentage of sixty than thirty).

The kicker is that bragging, the clear feeling that five million is worth a six-percent fine and a little more than half a year in a federal prison. And the feeling that he “made” the money he gained illegally but did not have to return. He “made” nothing, of course, but simply gained.  That’s not something anyone should be proud of.

This is the boy I knew talking, not someone who has grown into a responsible adult. “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” and all the similar attitudes, is not something that a mature, responsible adult believes.

This exchange has made me wonder, though not for the first time, whether or not any of us really ever matures—myself included. Are we all just larger versions of what we were when we were children? I like to think that I’ve changed a great deal over the years—and have every reason to hope that’s true (there’s much about my younger selves that I am not proud of, not at all). A study of children’s willpower concerning cookies shows a correlation to later success, however, indicating that we are controlled, at least to some extent, by what we were early in life.

The idea that all we are is determined, to a large extent, by genetics and by early experience depresses me greatly. My teaching, trying to awaken young adults to learning and new possibilities in their own lives, depends on belief in the idea that people can change and grow.

My faith in the possibility of change has been shaken recently. Not just by this small email exchange, but by a number of other things I have seen, and by things I have read (including the study referenced above). Yet I also see, almost every semester, students who seem to be taking control away from background and environment, re-shaping themselves in unexpected (and often positive) fashions.

I don’t want to believe stupidly, holding onto my faith simply because accepting the opposite would make many of my professional activities meaningless. So I have to look seriously at signs that I could be wrong. The email exchange with this childhood ghost certainly is one of these.

Let’s hope my students this semester provide a counter-balance.

 I expect they will.

Which is why I continue teaching.

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