Does Anyone Matter?
Does the universe operate by fate? Or human agency?
Two weeks ago we got a dog. For Jane it was a matter of making a
free choice...taking action fully conscious of the fact that that
action would change her life.
For me, it was succumbing to the inevitable.
Fate or agency?
Now that Henry has been with us for a few days, we've noticed that
he has a few foibles. For example, we have observed that Henry
likes to bite things, and us. Now, actually, I wasn't
surprised. I had heard that many puppies do like to bite. One
might even think, perhaps, that it is inevitable. It has to
But there is one breed of people who do not believe that biting is
inevitable. And that is the kind who read books on dog
And there must be a lot of people who believe that
misbehavior is not inevitable…that what they do with their dog makes
a difference because there are, perhaps, even more books on
how to train and care for your dog than there are on how to train
and care for your children, if that is possible.
And, just like the kid books, it turns out that you have to
read them ALL. You can't get by just reading one...because they all
contradict each other.
On the matter of biting, for example, Jane has run across four
authorities advocating different approaches. Authority 1 says if
the dog bites your hand, stay still and he will get bored.
Authority 2 says pull your hand away. Authority 3 says slap the dog
on the nose. And authority 4 says growl at him!
Well, I've tried each of these tactics. But I have to wonder
whether it really matters what I do. Perhaps it is just a
matter of satisfying my own ego to think that I could
have control over this dog.
Judith Harris, the author of a new book called The Nurture
Assumption, makes a similar argument about parenting
Harris's book has raised quite a bit of attention because its
central argument opposes the trend of parenting literature in recent
decades. Whereas most parenting books now emphasize the
importance of parental influence on children, Harris argues
that the long-term impact of parents' on their children's
personality is approximately zero.
At first glance this theory would seem to be the work of a
crackpot. Or, that is how it appeared to me. In fact, I was
incensed at the idea. How could anyone say such a thing? Doesn't
it fly in the face of reality? And even if, god forbid, it is
true...well, you can't go around telling people such a thing.
Imagine what would become of parenting if parents came to believe
that it was all the same if they beat their kids, or hugged
them...taught them or ignored them. Could she really be saying
with a straight face that it doesn't make any difference?
Now of course, in today's media market, one can get a lot of
attention for crackpot ideas. But it turns out that Harris has just
received an award from the American Psychological Association.
Someone has looked at her work, and found it to have merit. And
here is why:
It seems intuitively obvious that parents have an enormous impact
on their children's lives. But let's look at the evidence: Within
most families we can see two or more children who share the same
parents but have vastly different personalities. This was
particularly evident to Harris, who was the biological mother of one
daughter, and the adoptive mother of another. Looking back upon
three decades as a family, Harris could not help but wonder how
these two children, who both entered her household as infants, could
turn out so differently.
One daughter was rather timid, and did well in school. The other
daughter was bubbly and outgoing, had a great deal of difficulty in
school, and hung out with friends who got into trouble.
Throughout these decades of parenting two drastically different
children, Harris was also writing psychology textbooks, and seeing
in the psychological literature an increasing emphasis upon the role
of parents... sometimes, she thought, to an extreme.
Theories about physically bonding with a child immediately after
birth... and even about having an impact upon the child's
development before birth by playing music or reading to a child in
These ideas were quite in contrast to the pre-Freudian literature,
when books on child development didn't mention parents at all! But
now it has come to the point where -- every problem a person has --
they look back to see what their parents did to cause it!
But why shouldn't we look to our parents to help us understand why
we've turned out as we have?
Many studies have shown the impact of quality parenting on
children's outcomes. Dad reads to Charlie, for example, and Charlie
comes to love reading, does well in school, and finds love and
financial success in adulthood.
But Harris took these same studies and turned the assumption of
cause and effect on its head. Isn't it possible, she asks, that Dad
reads to Charlie because Charlie likes to be read to? That he
was born that way? That it is in his genes?
And so Charlie becomes a good reader, not because Dad reads to him
all the time. But dad reads to him all of the time because Charlie
is pre-programmed to be a good reader.
Perhaps Charlie isn't responding to Dad's reading, but Dad was
responding to Charlie's actions, his excitement about sitting
down with a book, or his temperament, as expressed through his
inborn love of reading.
In biologically intact families, it would be hard to tell which
came first. How do we know whether Charlie inherited that love of
reading from his dad, or if he learned it? Harris looks to studies
of adoptive families, where the children came to have no more
in common with the people who reared them, fed them, clothed them,
taught them, and loved them all their lives...than with any two
adults taken at random off the street.
Her preliminary conclusion, then, is that most of what becomes of
kids is determined by their genes...and the rest is determined by
Time precludes me from presenting several other cogent
arguments that Harris offers to show that parenting doesn't
matter. I would encourage you to read the review in the New
Yorker in particular.
I do believe that her theory has been sensationalized and blown out
of proportion for the purpose of getting attention. But I also
believe that the expressions of outrage at Harris, published
as letters to the editor... reveal an ego-centric desire for
control... or, perhaps, a love of responsibility that I
certainly cannot maintain as a parent...
Harris does acknowledge two areas in which parental behavior has an
effect upon children. First, she says, "the parent's
behavior...does affect how the child behaves in the presence of the
parent, or in contexts that are associated with the parent."
Second, "the parent's behavior also affects the way the child
feels about the parent." And these feelings can last a
Obviously I was interested in Harris's studies because I am a
parent. But I was also interested as a minister, not just to
parents, but to everyone who asks about their relative importance in
the world...anyone who asks if what they do with their lives...if
the way they behave...even matters.
I would like you to imagine in your mind, a continuum. A simple
line, running from one side of the room to another. Allow this line
to represent your own beliefs about how much of an impact you have
upon the world around you...how much control you have over how
things turn out.
At one end of the line we would have the extreme position that
everything that has happened and everything that is going to
happen has already been determined. Everything is set in
place, and you cannot change it.
Perhaps it has been set in place by the natural unfolding of the
laws of nature. Perhaps this is the only way things could
possibly have turned out, and it is our role in life to go with the
Still on this end: Perhaps everything is set because God
has made it this way. This is God's plan. This is the will of the
universe. And you cannot change it. So let go and let God.
I hope you will see that this position is neither inherently
theistic nor atheistic. The theist and atheist may be entirely in
agreement on this matter.
Neither is this point of view inherently optimistic, or
pessimistic. The optimist might say how wonderful it is that
everything is unfolding according to the plan. And even if I
cannot understand why I have cancer... everything happens for a
The pessimist can also hover around this end of the philosophical
spectrum, bemoaning the fact that the world is going to go its own
way, regardless of how hard he tries...that nothing he does is going
to make any difference. The pessimist here, is even in danger of
becoming a nihilist, giving up any concern at all with what he
does...or how his behavior affects others.
It is ironic -- that the person who lives at ease, and without
care, is so philosophically similar to the person who couldn't care
Do you live somewhere in this realm? Or down at the other end of
the spectrum, to your right, where
the future is entirely open...anything and everything is
Again, this point of view is not inherently theistic, or atheistic.
The theist may say that god is a process, god is the grand
accumulation of all that has come before... but god is not a control
freak ...god is not absolute and unchanging, remote and unaffected
by the world...but the future is open because god is open, and
responsive, to world.
In Poor Richard's Almanac it was said this way: "God
helps those who help themselves." In the Hebrew scriptures it
was said this way: "I the Lord will smite your city with
pestilence...but if you turn from your evil ways, I will change my
mind and you will have prosperity instead."
The atheist might also find herself at this end of the line. The
atheist might say that the universe operates at random; that natural
laws are purely human constructs; and that just because the sun has
come up predictably for billions of years doesn't mean that it will
come up tomorrow...
Nothing is settled down at this end.
Down at this end where both the optimist and the pessimist can
live: The optimist giddy at the thought of freedom &
potential... The pessimist fearful that nothing can be
relied upon to stay the same.
Once again, you have strong philosophical similarity between the
person who is ecstatic about life's possibilities... next to the
person who is paralyzed in fear by the same thing.
Consider the extremes:
<= everything is set, and controlled by something outside of
=> nothing is set, I have the potential to change it
Where do you find yourself on this continuum?
This is actually two questions: where do you find yourself on the
line, philosophically. And where do you find yourself on the
line, according to your behavior?
Do you THINK you have some control?
Do you ACT as if you have some control?
In our reading today, Robert Walsh tells us that everything
matters. I love what he has to say. It is inspirational. It is an
extreme position. I don't think that I could live from day to day
if I took it literally.
So instead of taking it literally, I take it as a metaphor. A
deeply inspirational, non-absolute, metaphor. Like the metaphor of
the interdependent web of existence.
The metaphor of "the interdependent web of existence of which
we are a part" is powerful and dramatic. When I experience
myself engaged in that web I know that what I do has an impact. If
I love I send out waves of love. If I recoil from love, then
everything that I touch is affected. Belief in the interdependent
web is belief that I matter.
But sometimes this metaphor has been taken to extremes.
In one of Ray Bradbury's short stories, for example, he tells of
a time traveler who accidentally steps off the time machine and
disturbs the flight of a butterfly. Traveling back into his own
traveler finds everything to be exactly the same, except,
in the recent election, not the democrat, but the
republican has won.
I do not take his fantasy to mean that Bradbury really
believes that disturbing the course of a butterfly today will have a
disproportionate effect in a thousand years...but we do sometimes
see this kind of rhetoric.
And it helps me to identify my own place on the continuum,
somewhere between "my actions mean nothing," and
"my actions mean everything." And I find my place
in an area marked proportionality.
That is to say that I expect my effect on the world to be only
proportionate to the effort that I put into it... which brings me
over there somewhere.
But I also have a strong appreciation for the randomness of
experience, and for our human ability to intervene…to make something
out of the unexpected, the unearned…grace.
Consider our children's story today. Allison's adoptive parents
clearly had good intentions. They loved her and attended to her
But when Allison discovered that she was different, all of her
adoptive parents' love wasn't enough. All of their love could not
keep her from feeling different, and isolated. And they felt as if
they didn't matter.
And yet they did matter. Because they set a context in
which the seemingly random appearance of the stray cat, came to
A central principle of our UU philosophy is that human beings
create meaning out of their own experience. Some of us believe that
an external and/or conscious power guides our experience to happen.
Some of us do not. Some of us are somewhere in between.
But regardless of whether an external and/or conscious power guides
our experience to unfold in a certain way, it is still up to us to
make something out of it.
Allison, in the pre-determined context of her parents' love, was
able to create meaning in her life by receiving and loving the stray
The same challenge faces us every day: to take what has come to
us...and make meaning...make peace...and make a difference.
Do you matter? I'd like us to break into groups of 4 and take the
next few minutes answering that question on a personal level. You
do not have to say yes...it is best to be honest...live with your
doubts, fears, uncertainty...but if anyone in your group cannot say
yes...stay with them...do not try to convince them otherwise...but
stay with them...
May I have the Courage to change the things I can,
The Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.
May I have patience with things that take time,
Appreciation for all that I have,
Tolerance for those with different struggles,
And the Strength to get up and try again,
one day at a time.
Allen Say, Allison
Robert Walsh, "It Matters," in Noisy Stones
Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption
Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker (8-17-98)