Imagine, if you will, that your life took a radically different turn years ago. Imagine how the arc of your existence would differ had you chosen a different path. Let me be clear, though. I am not asking you to consider how your material wealth might have been different; I am asking you to ponder how your internal life would be different. Since we’re talking impossibilities here, I also invited you to consider how you might be different if you had lived in different places in different times in history.
How would your perspectives on climate change differ from the viewpoint you hold today if, as a youngster, you moved to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, to an island that since has either sunk beneath the surface of the sea or is in imminent danger of doing so?
Would your take on poverty and race be any different today if you had grown up on a cotton plantation in Alabama in the 1850s to a wealthy family? Would you, a child to parents who viewed the destitute as lazy and personally responsible for their poverty? Would you have viewed black people simply as property, as if that’s just the way the world works?
From whom, or what, do we learn empathy? If your mother was highly empathic and your father was cold and callous, how did your capacity for empathy evolve?
I imagine a set of triplets—boys—separated at birth; one adopted by an Asian couple, Buddhists; one by a white atheist couple; and one by a black Southern Baptist couple. Do each of the three boys, when they reach adulthood, view the world through their brothers’ eyes? Or do they carry the baggage of the culture from which their maturity emerged?
Ever since my first sociology courses, and probably before, I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which individual human beings develop their unique outlooks on humanity and the world in which we live. For a time, I was of the radical opinion that society (meaning all of us, collectively) should try to inculcate in every individual fundamental values that would inform the person’s interactions with others. And, then, I realized that’s exactly what society has been trying to do for as long as societies have existed. The problems, of course, are legion. First, society’s attempts often fail; deviant behavior is and will be a fact of life in every society. Second, fundamental values differ by “tribe.” Third, internal and external forces on individuals and on society at large tend to change what constitutes fundamental values.
If I had been alive—every cell in my body, every element of my DNA exactly as they are now—and living in colonial Massachusetts during the time of the Salem witch trials, would I have been outraged at the injustice? Might I have been a man who aggressively prosecuted the people accused of practicing witchcraft?
These “what ifs” that involve me, personally, prompt me to ask very difficult questions about myself. Am I a product of my own making, or does my “self-determination” owe its existence to the trickery of socialization? Is the “me” I recognize in myself a creature rooted in my DNA or is that beast simply a manifestation of what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been fed (intellectually)? And, back to the original point, was the path I chose (or, I should say, the one thrust upon me with little to no objection) truly a choice? Had I chosen to be a stockbroker, might my ideas about the value and worth of integrity have gone far afield of where they are today?
The unfortunate aspect of being our own Petri dishes is that we cannot compare the cultures that grow in the dish we inhabit against the cultures that might have grown in a different environment. We cannot take that different turn, the one at age eight or age twenty-seven, that might have led to a radically different outcome; or that might have proven the immutable nature of our natures.
So, in the end, we can only wonder. “What if…?”