Janet Walkow Christine Jacobs

Nurture or Nature?

            …a personal story

The role of our environment and upbringing versus individual/genetic composition is an ongoing debate. Knowing several sets of twins, each with markedly different personalities, interests and vocations, most people agree that both nature and nurture play a role in our persona’s. Family structure and early influences set us on life paths that typically require us to make mid-course corrections that reflect our dreams and goals. In any case, we must take ultimate responsibility to empower ourselves to lead our lives. Some people have great difficulty finding their voices and we can learn from their stories.

Impact of Early Years

My cousin recently died. I’m not sure what’s sadder – how he died or how he lived. His mother suffered from mental illness and abruptly abandoned the family when he was 3. Along with his father and brother, he moved in with my grandparents, who were thrilled to be able to help. His sister, only months old, was raised by our loving aunt and uncle, who lived down the street. My grandparents doted on my cousins and provided a loving environment. His dad was busy working to build clientele at his retail store and wasn’t around much.  As a result, there wasn’t a strong father-son bond as he was growing up.

My cousin was shy but always sweet. I can’t find anyone who ever heard him utter a bad or mean word about anyone. At his funeral, he was aptly described as a person with his hand extended out to help others – never asking for anything in return.  In fact, you would rarely hear him ask for anything, which was an issue for him.

Self-Empowered or Silent?

A more confident, stronger person asks for what they need. Though he had caring grandparents, he lacked any sort of intact family structure to nurture him in ways that would help him define himself, find his voice and make his mark on the world. He always seemed to be in the shadow of his older brother, who seized on every opportunity to bolster himself, taking advantage of my cousin’s personality. What happens if you don’t have a voice with your family, friends or at work? Relaying what is important to you is the basis for self-fulfillment and strong relationships. Without a voice and unable to express your needs, one can feel isolated, alone and depressed.

Over the years, my cousin put up with being put down, passed over and taken for granted. In recent years, he moved in with his father and the two formed a solid, cohesive connection. He was devastated when his father died. It was especially difficult given that they had finally developed a strong bond after so many years.  Only two weeks later, my cousin was found dead. The cause is still unknown – it could have been complications from a recent surgery, possible drug overdose or some other cause.

Different Paths

The news of his death jolted me and I reflected on how differently our lives had turned out. It was clear that he wouldn’t stand up to others and wasn’t equipped to handle personal conflicts. Was this avoidance, a lack of nurturing or just his nature? Without nurturing and good role models during childhood and adolescence, he was vulnerable. As children, we can’t control our surroundings and I thank my mother regularly for providing the structure and support to become a strong individual.

My cousin’s life story stings me. He was sweet and kind, but not empowered to be anything but silent. For all of us who have a voice, I urge you to join me in helping others find theirs. If you don’t have a voice, know that there are people around you who can help you find yours – but, you can’t do it in silence.

Janet Walkow is the Executive Director and Chief Technology Officer of the Drug Dynamics Institute at The University of Texas and a co-founder of Leading Women. Read her full bio.

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