Words Amatulla Z.
Header Credits Zahra A. (@zahra.amiruddin)
Nature vs. Nurture
Nurturing A Change
Is change possible? Can I be born one thing and then, through my choices, through the exercise of my own free will, or the watchful guidance of a mentor, can I become a completely different thing? That, after all, is the promise of nurture isn’t it? That our personalities are not set in stone, and can be changed and molded?
The answer, as I discovered, is absolutely, change is possible, and so much lies within our power. In fact, so much is expected of us; the promise of life on earth is to use the basic resources of our personalities to take ourselves to a whole new place. To ignore that gift and that possibility can only be thought of as a tragic waste.
Let’s begin with science
When I have questions about the mind, or personality, I begin with a psychologist I know well. Rashida ben Mustafa is a practicing psychoanalytic and clinical psychologist and a member of the British Psychological Society.
“It would be daft to argue that nature has nothing to do with personality,” she told me, “but we know now more than ever that the brain is plastic and that everything one does shapes the hard-wiring of the brain as well. So I cannot stress the importance of nurture enough.”
When she says “the brain is plastic” she is referring to neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. This is the latest form of brain science and it tells us that the brain isn’t static, even after its initial formation in infancy. Researchers now know that your brain can continually grow and change and reorganize itself as you learn new things. We used to believe that the brain was ‘hard-wired’ – its neurons, once set, were fixed forever – but, in fact, it can be continually re-wired.
As she explained, the things we do, the things that happen to us, the way we react to them, all shape our personality. Say an infant is hungry for many hours before he gets fed. The baby has not much control over this experience but its impact on his personality depends on his reaction. The baby might get sad, and begin to believe that the world isn’t a very nice place; the baby might grow up to be grasping, believing there’s never enough to go around; or, in a best case scenario, the baby might learn patience, and that if only you wait, good things come at last. Same experience, different personality outcomes.
You can keep this up your whole life. Your hard-wiring might fuel your original responses, but you can learn to change your responses, either by someone’s guidance, or your own actions. This will, quite literally, change who you are. The lesson here is: imagine your best self. Then reach for it.
Where we get stuck.
At this point, many readers are still skeptical, remembering their own failed attempts at change. Those failures lead us to believe that we are who we are and there are some parts of us that it is futile to attempt to change, that it’s just our nature. We come to that assumption because we have tried so long and so hard to effect self-change and failed so many times. Eventually we give up.
Scientists put the blame on what they call false hope syndrome. In her paper “The false hope syndrome: unrealistic expectations of self-change” Janet Polivy of the University of Toronto says that it is our unrealistic goals and expectations that lead us to disappointment. For example, losing weight may not necessarily lead to a job promotion, or a new boyfriend, yet many people imagine that it will. Or it may not be possible to lose weight as fast as we imagine we will, yet we are disappointed when we do not, and we blame ourselves for it.
“Real hope of changing requires that our skills match our goals — our goals may thus need to become more appropriate in order for us to accomplish them,” she says in her paper. “We must learn to determine accurately the difficulty of self-change, to establish realistic goals, to keep our expectations reasonable, and to develop coping skills to help us to contend with the setbacks that normally accompany efforts to change.”
What about Islam?
Religion concurs. Mulla Yusuf bhai Ghadiali is a young teacher of theology at Al-Jamea, Marol. He dipped into his books to offer me an Islamic perspective.
Since religion encompasses more than just what is earthly, it takes into account the effect of the stars, and the time and the place that you were born etc. into what you are given in your basic nature. But as we know, the story doesn’t end there.
“Personality is developed,” Mulla Yusuf bhai tells me, “and that’s totally in your hands. There are some character traits we are born with, but all the others are learned, the word in the book is earned actually.”
He uses an example to clarify. “Let’s say you weren’t born with generosity. That doesn’t mean you can’t be generous. What begins as an action turns into a habit and, if you do it for long enough, becomes your nature. Only Awliyaullah (AS) are born with all the good character traits and therefore for all the rest of us we have to work at it. Some things are easier for some people, some things are harder for other people, but nothing is impossible to you in the end.”
So keep on with those role models and gurus and self-help books and listen to your mother. Unlike what G.B.S said, kings may be born after all, but the rest of us are certainly made. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes acceptance of your starting point and it takes fortitude, but here’s to the potential for change that lies within us all.