Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Driven Man: Nature or Nurture?

Google image of Irish Potato Famine 1845-1851

"Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul of another person. In those moments we know other people's joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own." 
~Fritz Williams~

When I look at Michael Earles, my paternal great grandfather by adoption ( he adopted my grandmother Evelyn) I have questions. I wonder what drove him. Was he running with fear to escape the life his parents told him about in Ireland? Or was he running towards opportunities his parents exposed him to in their new world, America?

Think about it with me for a minute. What is your answer to the age-old question of what shapes a child's life more? Is it nature or nurture?

Imagine life in Michael's home in 1860. You're about five years old and your father's a farmer in Wisconsin. The bedtime stories could be ones of suffering and death of friends and relatives enduring the six years of the Potato Famine of Ireland. Stories of how they had nothing to eat but potatoes until even those were scarce, leaving families to beg in the streets to survive. Were those images impressed upon him to scare him to make something of his life so as never to have to endure suffering like that?

Or were the stories full of adventure? Tales of escaping sure death as they, along with thousands of other families uprooted themselves with the clothes on their backs, hope in their hearts, and sheer determination to make a better life for themselves in America.

Was he given images of suffering or hope aboard ships that carried his parents and brothers into New York in 1849?

The story doesn't matter as much as the interpretation of it offered by the storyteller as he or she plants it in the fertile mind of the listener, who is often a child. A child who is open and vulnerable to new concepts and ideas, and sometimes unable to discern between the character's feeling and the feelings a parent ignorantly projects onto the character.

You can tell the story of The Three Little Pigs a number of ways. The pigs can be victims or courageous, slow to learn, or eventual team-players. It can be a story of horrendous loss of property and life (the wolf's), or triumph of good over evil.

How did Michael's parents talk to him about their past, present and future?

I was wondering because Michael did a lot with his life. He helped build railroads in Kansas, Colorado, and Montana. He started logging companies, purchased and operated a saw mill in Washington State, and helped organize the American Savings Bank in Seattle, of which he  was a director and stockholder. He owned two steam tugs that operated in Puget Sound in the late 1880's, and one steamboat The Betty Earles, named after his first daughter, that carried passengers to and from his lodge, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort on Lake Crescent, Washington.

The "Betty Earles"

When I contemplate his life and the things that he did I think about transportation and how it was changing the United States. I think of a man who saw a need and filled it. He was an opportunist in the best sense of the word. He was one of the first to use a "steam pony" in his logging business when others were sticking to horses, waiting to see what would happen with this new tool.

I've come to the conclusion that a person can only run on fear for so long. Their true nature eventually shines through. His parents may have driven him to "succeed" or not to "fail". No matter how and why Michael started on his quest to achieve, it seems that he was just a driven man. Driven by curiosity to fix problems that slowed him down.

Yesterday I laughed seeing a bit of Michael in myself.

 It was a beautiful day and I'd suggested we go apple-picking. There were 8 of us and only 5 seats in the car. As the rest of the family was drawing straws to see who would stay home and who would get one of the 5 seats I left the heavy mood of the kitchen, grabbed the keys to the car, and drove down the street to my friend's house. I came home with a promise to use her 8-seater car in 1/2 an hour much to the surprise of the rest of the family. There would be no one left behind.

Some people just think that way. They see a problem and solve it. Others are there to put their arm around you while you figure it out. Some people just make the best of a bad situation, sometimes complaining because they can't see a solution to their predicament.

At first I was intimidated by Michael. I focused on his accomplishments. I  think I see him differently now. I  can feel how he might have been experiencing his circumstances and matching who he was by nature to what life presented to him. He fit perfectly into that era. I believe America, especially the Northwest was waiting for him.

I learned a little bit more about myself as I studied Michael's life. I could see better how we are all different, yet important.  My life's story will be vastly different from Michael's. But if he and I were to sit and talk I think we'd be able to empathize a bit as we compared the circumstances of the era we were both born into:
  • There is suffering because of economic and natural disaster.
  • Families are being torn apart and tried.
  • There are great opportunities for those willing to make the shift from the world we know to what the "new world" is offering.
In the end we have a choice. Either we focus on the accomplishments and failures of a person as we measure him against others of his day, or we take an individual and see how his unique set of circumstances and influences contribute to the molding or breaking of his character.

Whether someone creates a company that employs thousands, or lovingly and tenderly holds a starving child taking his last breath in mortality, that person has done his part, and done it well.  Both require one to see who they are for and in the world and to acknowledge the importance of the role they play.


  1. Betsy, aloha. You weave quite a story with your ponderings. You have a great ability to make your thoughts come alive on paper.

    Like you, Betsy, I will go with nature.

    The reason for that is people do have certain inherent qualities. Nurture may bring them out or diminish those less desirable, however, they were there to begin with. Let me give you an example

    Years ago, I had friends who had 3 boys less than 19 months apart. It was the old story of she couldn't get pregnant so they adopted one whereupon she became pregnant. Anyway, back to the story.

    So all three boys were raised by the same parents, the econmics of the household for all three were the same, the parents were highly engaged with all three boys and theirs activities. The result? All three boys were entirely different in how they approached things, what they did with the inevitable conclusion being how they turned out.

    Thx so much for sharing another of your ancestors with me. Until next time, aloha. Janet

  2. Hey Janet! You're very welcome. I look at my children and see the same thing. Maybe that's what I was searching for? You know? That feeling of peace that I may have influenced my children, but not changed who they were meant to be in the world.
    Thanks Janet!

  3. Betsy,

    I love how you solved the problem with the neighbor's car!

    As for nature and nurture, I'd have to work through a lot of thoughts and feelings on that one to express an opinion here. And today's not the day.

    But I do have a big hug for you.

    I appreciate you, Betsy,

  4. Hey Stan,
    I agree, there is a lot to say about what influences a person to do what he does and how he does it. Honestly, this was all I could come up with for this man because I was so overwhelmed with his life!
    Thanks for the comment. If I know you you'll come up with something REALLY deep!

  5. Hi Betsy, I definitely am a can do person. That gets me in trouble sometimes, just because I can do something doesn't mean I should, but in general, that works well for me and the family. I loved your story about the car. That's something I would have done. And if I lived near you with an 8 seater car, well, my friend, you could borrow it anytime.

    I also wonder about the bravery of those who emigrated to the US. I lived in the UK for four years and it was rough, even though our family had wonderful corporate support. I can't imagine how those who left their home country permanently due to suffering survived.

    Thanks for sharing this great post with us, Betsy!

  6. Great things to think about in this day and age with all that's going on around us! I love potatoes and traveling, but neither under duress!
    Thanks Carolyn. I don't know how you have the time to read, but thanks for taking a minute!I can tell that you are very focused , but also empathetic and generous.

  7. I think it is a mix of nature and nurture. Some people do because they don't know how not to and others don't because they don't know how.

    But I think that the latter group is sometimes populated by people who could do more but don't for a variety of reasons. Sometimes nurture comes into play there.

  8. Oh My! Jack, you are quite a thinker. I can't keep up with you. Believe it or not, I had to reread your comment twice! LOL! I think that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" applies here, but in two ways. Michael must have had role models to show him what was possible, AND he must have inherited some genes that made him VERY energetic. You know how you see kids of scientists or artists that seem to be gifted in the same way? And others in the same family are completely different. I just don't know!

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