Products of our environment

There are few things more paralyzingly frightening to me than the responsibility of raising good moral citizens.

Every time I hear about a horrible crime or some terrible perpetrator, I think not just of the victims but also of the offender’s parents.

Because, sometimes, parents really try, and still fail, at this whole ‘nurture’ thing.

It’s really, really, really scary.

I’m thinking a lot, this week, about the impact of the environment on human behavior, because my oldest son started school for the fall yesterday. And, while my influence on him, still, weighs heavily on my mind and heart, even during the school year, I am also conscious of how much who he is will be shaped by the context in which he spends a majority of his waking hours, August through May.

Maybe I really shouldn’t have spent so much time reading about Auschwitz this summer.

One of the major lessons of Auschwitz’s history, as related in the book, is shared in the first few pages: “Human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation” (xx).

This is seen in the ghettos, where corruption flourished among people completely ethical before their deprivation (p. 70). It is evident in the experiences of different nations during Nazi occupation, where those with cultures amenable to prejudice saw anti-Semitism take root quickly, because there was already fertile soil for these perverse values.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that we don’t have choices about how we behave.

We do. And the Holocaust also proves that point, as there are certainly examples of those who transcended their circumstances, defied expectations, and lived their free will.


But it’s also a story about how our choices are constrained by our context, and about how important it is to create a culture that affirms our core values–not just social work values, but values of human rights and basic dignity–so that individuals desiring to live those commitments won’t have to swim upstream so much.

We have to build environments that reward justice and provide incentives for compassion.

So that we will grow up just and compassionate.

And, we hope, stay that way.

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