“What have we here, laddie? Mysterious scribblings? A secret code? No! Poems, no less! Poems everybody! The laddie reckons himself a poet!”
~Pink Floyd, The Wall
According to the baby books my Mrs. devoured when pregnant, there are two different personality traits infants have while in utero. You administer a test by pushing on the belly, and the baby will either: (a) try to wiggle away, frightened by whatever intrusive presence is pressing upon its home, or (b) start kicking away at the trespasser, basically saying, “Oh no you didn’t!”
*Waves baby index finger in the air*
My daughter was a kicker, a willfully belligerent little bugger who fought back when challenged.
Watching her grow, I wonder: does this personality trait of the womb carry over into who we are as children, adolescents, and adults? It’s the age-old question: Nature, or Nurture? Do events in our life shape us into who we become, or is the wellspring of confidence or cocoon of shyness inherent in our biology? To put it another way: can a street hustler become a Wall Street stockbroker with a little nudge?
(“Looking good, Billy Ray!” “Feeling good, Louis!”)
I have a friend whose earliest childhood ambition was to be a lawyer. In his own words, he didn’t know what a lawyer was, but he liked the idea of dressing sharply and wearing a suit to work. One day in grade school, they went around the room, with students announcing their dream job.
When my friend made his pronouncement, the teacher’s response was, “You aren’t smart enough to be a lawyer.”
And that was that.
My friend said the defeatist statement stuck with him, and in part he gave up on his goal because of the lack of support from an authority figure. My friend was timid then, and is unassertive to a fault today. He genuinely worries about other people’s feelings. Not that that’s a bad thing, but he seems to sacrifice his opinions for the constant sake of not wanting to make ripples, much less waves.
On the other hand, I have never been accused of taking into account what others think.
I never intend harm with my idiocy—not unless I’m dealing with an obnoxiously drunk heckler or severely obtuse and under-educated lout—but I’m also not shy about vomiting up my thoughts on any given subject. I don’t take myself too seriously, even if I sometimes forget that others might not understand that. When my lack of tact comes into contact with someone of less-than-stellar self-esteem, it can cause for an interesting oil-meets-water dynamic. Especially during online interactions. In person, tone and inflection can carry a joke, but online, all vocal lilts are absent. If I am bleating like a sheep, words said in jest can be interpreted as cold, or even harsh.
I’m not sure what caused me to be argumentative, but it’s been a part of me for as long as I can remember. Whenever I was ever told in life that I would be unable to achieve a dream or obtain a goal, I wanted nothing more than to prove the person wrong.
Like my friend’s interaction with the teacher who shot down his lawyerly aspirations, I also experienced authority figures who used their own unique brand of judgment to determine my future. In high school, an assistant principal said matter-of-factly and straight to my face that I would probably spent time in jail. Not because I had a lengthy record of starting fights, being drunk, or using drugs, but because he and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the state of our school’s education.
Because I was young, it was assumed I was wrong.
I’ll fully admit I did have a “bad attitude” in high school; I was surly and moody and had a chip on my shoulder because I wasn’t part of the “in” crowd or popular with girls. In other words, I was a teenager. If I was going to jail because of my “attitude problem,” then so was half the school.
But that’s not my point; when told I would end up in jail, though I remained silent, I remember thinking quite clearly: “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” I did not back down, cry, or cower from the authority figure in front of me, I dismissed his ignorance immediately. If anything, using an internal form of Judo, I flipped his words upon their given meaning to make me stronger. “You think I’m going to jail? I’ll show you that I can be better than you’ve ever given me credit for.”
So, what made me confident the assistant principal was wrong, and why did my friend take it to heart he would never be a lawyer?
Our childhoods were dissimilar, but not so much so that an easy form of psychological finger-pointing could be done: “Well look! This is why one pushes while the other shoves!” It’s not as if I was raised under the wing of millionaire parents, never wanted for anything, and was raised to be as confident as a Rockefeller. I just never liked being told, “That’s outside your abilities.”
Going all the way back to the where this started, one thing that crosses my mind is: why does no discussion of a third type of baby exist? There have to be babies who sit and do nothing when pushed against; what kind of person would this be? Would they be Zen, and immune to outside influence? Or sociopaths who sit quietly and act out in inappropriate ways?
On Facebook, in the “People You May Know” sidebar, the name of a woman popped up–someone I could have sworn dated one of my best friends in high school. I clicked on her, did a quick scan of her friends, and there he was. We hadn’t been in contact in years and years, mainly because he pretty much disappeared. After college, our communications became fewer and fewer until I noticed he hadn’t responded to a few emails. I took the hint and stopped reaching out.
I clicked on his Facebook profile and found something interesting; we had zero mutual friends. The reason this stood out is because whenever I click on anyone from my high school, we share anywhere from ten to forty people. Not that I’m friends-friends with everyone I went to high school with, but sometimes you recognize a name, or have a single, wistfully fond memory of a moment at a party with someone. Hell, even though I don’t interact with half of the people, I understand we all went through an experience together. Whether it was good or bad is different for each person, but it was a time we shared, and I think that stands for something.
I believe my old friend did a systematic distancing of his past. I spoke to a couple mutual former friends, and they said they were swimming in the same pond as me; at some random point, they stopped hearing from him completely. Looking back and fitting the puzzle pieces into their places, I believe it’s something he would have started in college. During his first semester, he “changed” his name. That’s in quotes because he didn’t do a full identity flip as if entering the witness protection program, he made a move in the faux-maturity direction. I’ll explain using me as an example; say you’d known me as ‘Nathan’ for a dozen years, and then one day I up and announced, “You must call me Nathaniel, because I’m a man now.” That’s what my friend attempted. When I would refer to him as I had for over eight years, he’d become prickly. He had an image in his mind of what an adult looked and sounded like and was intent on wearing that role, either at the expense or because of his past.
It makes me wonder if he acted this way because of something that happened to him while growing up, or if it is something inherent in his being. How would he have reacted to stimulus inside the womb? When society “pressed upon” him, instead of kicking back or cowering, he quietly waited things out, and then went his own way.
Which brings us full circle to my baby girl.
At the end of the day, everything I’ve written is all conjecture and isn’t important. No matter what my child is—sociopath/serial killer aside—when it arrives, I have to love and support her.
Whoever we are in life is neither good nor bad (but thinking makes it so), it is what we have to accept about ourselves. If I didn’t accept that some people aren’t always going to gel with my personality, I’d be either angry or depressed constantly. Regarding my friend who wanted to be the lawyer, his ability to worry about others is what makes him, him.
Photo: Getty Images