By Dr. Jim Ferguson

Families are living organisms, analogous to human beings. Humans are comprised of integrated organs; correspondingly, each member of a family plays a vital role in the whole. There is an African proverb which says, “It takes a village” to raise a child. The proverb emphasizes the village, a community which is justifiably important. However, we moderns are again learning the wisdom of Creation; it takes engaged parents and a family to properly raise a child and make a village.

I am an observer by nature. The Myers-Briggs typology explains why this internist notices a picture on the wall five millimeters askew. These days I watch the interactions of my children and my children’s children. It takes a lot of work to raise a child to adulthood and self sufficiency. As a parent I once thought it was more nurture than nature. Now, I’m not so sure. An obstetrical nurse friend of mine once quipped, “Kids are what they are when they come down the shoot.”

In my family we refer to the four grand kids as the “cute ones;” and they are! I’ll admit my bias, but the pictures I’ve shared with you of the cute ones attest to nature’s blessings. But, I’ve wondered, if physical characteristics are inherited and beyond any parental or grandparental influence, what else is genetically determined?

Noah is the oldest of the cute ones and is already turning the heads of middle school girls. However, the picture above best describes Noah. Yes, he’s the big brother and the leader of the pack, but his genuine love for his siblings is what I find most attractive and admirable. Perhaps Noah’s loving nature is genetic. However, I believe it is more nurture because Noah was shown love and is now able to Pay It Forward – as Kevin Spacey’s character learned in the 2000 movie. As parents and grandparents we hope our nurturing is the right kind. I know you can break the spirit of a thoroughbred. As parents, we just hope that feeding and loving our kids will bring out the best in them.

I am the oldest of three brothers. My wife, Becky, is the youngest of four girls. My parents were only children; Becky’s folks came from large families. Has birth order influenced our development? In the modern era the Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, theorized that birth order influenced personality. Scientifically, this concept remains controversial because psychological trends and traits are difficult to measure. Like Adler, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sought to explain human nature and each founded different movements within psychology. Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs further developed Jung’s perspectives and now their Myers-Briggs personality indicator is widely used. The tool accurately defines my personality. The Myers-Briggs typology is better than most psychometric tests, but still has only a 70% coefficient of reliability.

Many still see birth order as important in personality development and family dynamics. Logically, it would be hard to imagine that birth order could alter genetics. And I don’t believe in the pseudoscience of astrology which maintains that the orientation of planetary bodies at one’s birth determines personality and destiny. I can imagine that older brothers and sisters might be given additional responsibility of caring for their younger siblings. This might conceivably accelerate their psychological development. Alternatively, younger siblings might learn they can get away with more as parental anxieties give way to less micro-managing in subsequent children.

Though humans are social creatures, we are not gods and there is a limit to our bonding and caring. Perhaps this is why the family is the social unit favored by nature for humans. I believe that I was first loved by God. Then I was loved by my parents and grandparents. As a result of their gift I am blessed with the ability to love, and now able to share love with others in an expanding fashion like concentric circular waves emanating from a pebble dropped in a pond. However, because I am mortal those waves of love dissipate as they move farther outward into the world.

The gospeler Luke – who I believe was an internist in spirit – relates Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The Jews were clannish and nationalistic in Jesus’ time, and looked out for each other as neighbors, families and brothers do. A Jewish intellectual once challenged Jesus with the definition of neighbor. Jesus’ teaching is relevant even today. If you don’t know this story or haven’t read it lately, you should turn to the 10th chapter of Luke and do so now.  You will marvel at the wisdom of the Master who extends our boundaries of compassion and love.

Humans are naturally social and clannish. However, we remain sectarian at heart and cleave to those who are similar. I am intrigued by what makes us care about others, even those who are not similar or our immediate neighbors. Is it a genetic survival technique which allows us to be civil and exist within a community’s protection? Is it something we learn from our parents and families? Again the nature versus nurture conundrum resonates. But, I ask why can’t it be both, since everything exists as part of the Creation, and emanates from the will and power of God.

I see nature and nurture in the picture of Noah and his brother Oakley, together leaping into the future, bound by the brotherly love known as “philia” by the Greeks. Their non-choreographed leap, hand in hand with beautiful symmetry is made possible through joyous love. Our English language defines different types of love with adjective modifiers rather than specific nouns. The Greek language uses “eros” to define erotic love. Whereas, “storge” defines the love and affection between parents and children. Lastly, “agape” is sacrificial love which transcends the boundaries of our skin and drives us outward with compassion for all our brothers and sisters.

The cute ones are absorbing all these facets of love in a supportive and nurturing family and country. These children of God give me hope for the future.

If you liked this essay, check out my book of essays, “Well…What Did the Doctor Say?” It’s available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A great Christmas gift, if I say so myself! How’s that for shameless promotion? After all, writers believe their work should be read!