I frequently consider my father’s upbringing, which was significantly different from mine. He was raised one of six kids in a Christian household, in the sad city of Racine, Wisconsin. His family was poor, rationing powdered milk and turning to church for used clothing. However, my grandmother raised her children with unconditional love and steadfast virtues, so despite having six children squeezed into a tiny bedroom, they were all relatively satisfied. Meanwhile, their friends were from poorer families, many with absent, abusive, or alcoholic fathers. The less privileged neighborhood kids would fill my grandmother’s house as though it were a haven; Sleeping over on every spare surface, like on radiators and table tops. The house perpetually overflowed with impoverished adolescents, and my grandmother never turned one away. My father felt completely overlooked, as ten dirty hands would grab at one measly piece of toast. He retreated into himself and developed a neutral persona that could conform to his surroundings. He grew accustomed to the reality that he would not know privacy until adulthood. It came as no surprise that he moved away as soon as he turned eighteen, as did his siblings. Not one remained in Racine. Today, my grandparents live alone in a house that echoes with the memories of many voices.
So did my father take initiative and choose to abandon Racine? Or was he destined to leave from the moment he was born into a community of close minded individuals, with unlimited factors that forced him to think differently and have substantial aspirations? Recently, I have been questioning whether or not the choices we make are dictated by our minds or by a lifetime of external influences and genetic predispositions. For instance, every neighborhood kid that my father grew up with stayed in Racine. They did not receive college educations, instead they took factory jobs that reduced them to repeating the same small tasks over and over mindlessly. This repetition inevitably lead to insanity and depression. So the neighborhood kids perpetuated their parent’s legacies, resorting to alcohol in order to cope with their dismal routines; Living the life they grew up believing they had no control over. They were afraid to take risks and make change, because nobody had believed in them, and moving out of Racine seemed like an impossible fever dream. Although my father grew up in a similar position, simply having parental support and a mother that raised him right, provided the basis he needed to leave home, put himself through college, study abroad, and eventually attain success by conventional standards. My grandmother could not give him money nor physical provisions, but she gave him the right mentality to succeed.
One could argue that my father and his peers pursued dissimilar futures as human beings thinking for themselves do. However, I believe that their choices were driven by their upbringing, society, the state of America, and the state of the world. Our external influences reign supreme. They motivate our thoughts, behaviors, and actions. My own upbringing was influenced by my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great grandparents, and so on until the start of time. I am influenced by the people around me, who in turn are influenced by their friends, enemies, and predecessors. We are being controlled by factors we do not even consider.
If anyone was asked to choose happiness over sadness, the answer would be exclusively the former. So why did the neighborhood kids choose sadness over happiness? Stagnancy over the unexpected? Because the variables around them rationalized their decisions.
Later in life, different variables contributed to my father’s accumulation of worldly insights, all of which lead him to desire a simple life. One where his primary purpose involves providing for his family and finding contentment in minimalism, as evidenced by our sparsely furnished household. His experiences with flea ridden beds in the Middle East, are why he chooses to indulge in the luxury of lavish hotels. Despite this one indulgence, he once confessed to me that he still feels an inclination toward the poorer populace. This is not because of the adult life he built for himself, but rather the childhood he had no control over, that instilled modest tendencies within him from the start.
So are people in control of themselves? Dwell on that, the next time you “choose” to read a book, or instigate a conversation…
Nina Berggren, class of 2020