07/10/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

70 Is the New 70

Most readers of fiction will tell you that they often come upon a line that personally hits them squarely and brings them pause, even while they simultaneously realize that most other people will simply read on past the statement or sentiment. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is in not in the stars, but in ourselves. The "fault," in this case, is the place we are in in our lives. I can remember how meaningful the Beatle's song "When I'm 64" was to me when I was 64, how I sang it on my birthday, how its lyrics resonated with me. But now I am no longer 64 and the tune has little current meaning for me.

Rather, I turn now, at 70, to the lyrics in Paul Simon's song, "Old Friends": "How terribly strange to be seventy?" and a line uttered by Max Roby, a fictional character in Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Empire Falls," who describes himself as "sempty [seventy] but I can still climb like a monkey" (hence my kinship with him). He is father to the protagonist, Miles Roby, the middle-aged hero who, despite all his potential, never quite breaks from the bonds of guilt that keep him tethered to his fading home town in Maine.

In the made-for-TV version of this book, Max Roby was played by Paul Newman, who captured the feistiness of Max Roby perfectly. In a particularly engaging scene, Miles is having a meal with Max at the diner that Miles runs. In the course of the conversation, Miles says to Max, "You've got Cheetos in your beard." Max then delivers the line that engaged me so. He replies simply, "So what?" Once he gets past the shock of his father's answer, Miles thinks to himself:

Max had a point... and was probably right. People were just themselves, their efforts to be otherwise notwithstanding. Max was just programmed to be Max, to have food in his beard. Looked at from another angle, it probably was admirable that his father never battled his own nature, never expected more of himself than experience had taught him was wise, thereby avoiding disappointment and self-recrimination. It was a fine, sensible way to live.

In anticipation of readers accusing me of proposing that nature is all and that environment, even attachment parenting or other nurtures du jour, are of little import, I will reiterate here my point about things giving us pause according to where we are in life. Had I read Miles' thoughts about not battling one's own nature when I was a student in a Skinnerian behaviorist laboratory in the 1960s, I would have railed against it. But I have now battled my own nature for 70 years and I have seen thousands of college students battling their own natures in four decades of university teaching.

I am not blind to, nor do I derogate the centrality or the effects of nurture; they are there and they are powerful. My concern is with the growing belief that nature as a factor in how we live and behave is not ineluctable or inexorable. I take issue with the belief that nature can be over-ridden, that it can be set aside, overcome: Naturally aggressive children can be transformed into angelic ideal, playmates; naturally shy children can become social butterflies; and children with limited intellectual abilities can become intellectual powerhouses. Old people need not lose their cognitive capacities; 80-year-olds can climb Everest; 85-year-olds can finish a triathlon. Again, anticipating the brickbats, I know that a significant number of older people don't lose their capacities, but a significant number do, despite every effort not to. A few people can climb Everest or do a triathlon, but most can't, even if they have every wish to be able to. The reality is this: If indeed there is a battle between nature and nurture, in the long run, nature always wins.

Nature versus nurture was once the defining battleground in psychology and in our culture. We believed that the source of behavior, personality, gender roles, intelligence and even morality had to be one or the other and we tried to determine which it was. We all know the horrible outcomes of the extreme belief that nature is everything -- eugenics, racism and genocide, just for starters.

In the mid-twentieth century, culture and the field of Psychology came to a reasonable resting place when we began to see and say that nature and nurture interact with one another, the proportion of contribution of each varying according to the trait or capacity in question. Thus, intelligence might be a 50/50 split between heredity and environment, whereas experiencing depression might have a bit more of a biological basis. There is ample evidence in the behavioral genetics literature to support this "take" on the nature/nurture issue.

In recent years, it seems that the state of balance between nature and nurture has been abandoned and the pendulum has begun to swing again, this time, despite incredible amounts of research to the contrary, toward the non-data based nurture-is-everything and it is controllable extreme.

With this non-data based belief comes the blaming of all obese people for being overweight; holding parents accountable for everything their children do; holding schools accountable for all outcomes; feeling guilty if we lose mental and physical fitness as we age; being perceived as if or feeling as if we have failed if we become sick or grow old. With this idea comes book after book on how to "train our brains"; how to have the body of a 30-year-old when you are actually 60. I can't bear catch phrases like "60 is the new 50" and "50 is the new 40." I wait patiently for the ultimate "dead is the new alive" tagline stamped across an ad for video screens and Wi-Fi in caskets.

The fact is that both nature and nurture are critical components in the equations that we apply to understanding human beings, regardless of where they are in life. When we see both nature and nurture as present in all things human, we view the world fairly and realistically. When either factor becomes either too weak or too strong, we are in dangerous territory. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this. Sometimes, when someone says to us the equivalent of "Max, you've got Cheetos in your beard," we might simply say, "So what?" This can truly be a "fine and sensible way to live" no matter how old -- or young -- we are.