In his book In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, pastoral theologian Emmanuel Y. Lartey (2003) borrows from Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn and Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray's (1948) typology of the threefold nature of human personhood that speaks as well, in my view, to the interplay of spirit and soul within and among persons. Kluckholn and Murray discuss how “every . . . person is in certain respects: 1. Like all others; 2. Like some others; and 3. Like no other” (Lartey, 2003, p. 34). Lartey, in turn, reminds us that “each assertion of the threefold statement is true and important in itself”—and, I would add, enormously useful in helping caregivers navigate the complexities of persons and the convolutions of ministry.
We are like all others
Geneticists who have mapped the human genome have shown that at the level of the chromosomal base pairs that comprise our DNA, human beings are 99.8% identical. One must share that much genetic similarity with all other persons of all times and places just to get over the threshold of being recognizably human—99.8%. (Human beings also share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos and 50% with fruit flies; Linden, 2020, p. 28). Every person, Kluckholn and Murray (1948) write, “experiences birth and must learn to move about and explore [one’s] environment, to protect . . . against extremes of temperature and to avoid serious injuries; . . . [everyone] grows in stature, matures, and dies; and [one] does all this and much more, from first to last, as a member of a society” (pp. 35–36).
Some years ago, a conference at Trinity Church in New York on the theme “sacred stories” (Hanick & Hanick, 1990) headlined keynote speakers Frederick Buechner and Maya Angelou. Buechner, a buttoned-down but eloquent Presbyterian minister who had grown up in wealthy white suburban Essex Fells, New Jersey, reflected poignantly on suffering in his childhood the suicide of his father. Next up was Angelou, who was introduced by a man who said, “And now for a completely different story.” Angelou, an effusive and eloquent poet who had grown up poor and Black with her grandmother and uncle in tiny Stamps, Arkansas, began by saying, “My story is exactly the same as Frederick Buechner’s story. His story and my story are identical. There is no mystery between human beings.” Then she, like Buechner, proceeded to tell of her own childhood trauma—of her rape at age seven-and-a-half and of how she did not talk for the next five years in its aftermath.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (2005), in his classic The Art of Listening, writes:
Many analysts become analysts because they feel very inhibited to reach human beings, to relate to human beings, and in the role of analyst they feel protected. . . . [But] it is . . . very important that the analyst is not afraid of his own unconscious and therefore he is not afraid to open up the patient’s unconscious and . . . is not embarrassed about it. This leads me to . . . the premise of my therapeutic work: There is nothing human which is alien to us. Everything is in me. I am a little child, I am a grown up, I am a murderer, and I am a saint. . . . There is nothing in the patient which I do not have in me. And only inasmuch as I can muster within myself those experiences which the patient is telling me about . . . can I know what the patient is talking about. . . . The [Hebrew scriptures say]: “Love the stranger, because you have been strangers in Egypt and therefore you know the soul of the stranger [Deuteronomy 10:19].” (p. 100)
Like Angelou, Fromm is saying in his way that there is no mystery between human beings.
We are like all others. We should not despair of trying to understand each other even in this era of dangerously polarized religious and political discourse.
We are like some others
Lartey (2003) points out that because we are all human, “[W]e are each shaped [and] influenced by the community in which we are socialized” (p. 34). But Kluckholn and Murray also point out that being “like some others” is by no means limited to social classes, races, nations, or tribes. Seafaring people manifest certain similarities no matter the part of the world they come from. The same may be said of some common traits among desert-dwelling peoples, or among intellectuals, or athletes, or children who had tyrannical fathers, or among ministers, pastoral theologians, or hospital chaplains. This common ground that persons share with only some others is enormously formative, for better and at times for worse, for their sense of identity and communion. So many countless persons and peoples have benefited from the contextual and liberation theologies—Latin American, African American, feminist, queer—that have shaped scholarly discourse and pastoral practices for the past half century and that reflect the fact that we are like some others!
We are like no other
Each individual is sui generis, one of a kind, and when someone dies it can genuinely be said that the world will not see the likes of that person again (Capps, 2001, p. 247). As Kluckholn and Murray (1948) put it, “Each individual’s modes of perceiving, feeling, needing, and behaving have characteristic patterns . . . traceable, in part, to the unique combination of biological materials which the person has received from . . . parents,” but also, more exactly, from “countless and successive interactions between the maturing constitution and differing environing situations from birth onward. An identical sequence of such determining influences is never reproduced” (p. 37).
Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden (2020), in Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality, casts aside worn “nature versus nurture” debates on what makes for unique personhood, citing instead vast new evidence in neurobiology that demonstrates both that the human genome “is not a detailed cell-by-cell blueprint for the development of the body and brain, but rather a vague recipe jotted down on the back of an envelope” (p. 37) and that how parents nurture (or fail to nurture) their child is but “one small part of the nonhereditary determination of traits” (p. 36). Not only are genes modified by experience, but experience includes, beyond parental nurture, “more complicated and fascinating things like the diseases you’ve had (or those that your mother had while she was carrying you in utero), the foods you’ve eaten, the bacteria that reside in your body, the weather during your early development, and the long reach of culture and technology” (p. 7). One’s individuality, then, “is not a matter of ‘nature versus nurture’ but rather of ‘heredity interacting with experience, filtered through the inherent randomness of development.’” While nearly every cell in one’s body contains one’s entire genome, Linden notes that in any given cell “only some of these genes will ever be activated.” Hair follicle cells, for example, do not express “the genes to make insulin,” nor do pancreas cells grow hair (pp. 37–38).
Drawing on multiple studies of genetically identical twins, especially research on identical twins separated at birth, geneticists are able to determine the relative weight, within a range of 0–100 percent, of heritability in relation to experience for any number of traits. Linden acknowledges that “most human traits, regardless of whether they are physical or behavioral, have a significant heritable component, usually ranging from 30 to 80 percent” (p. 22). One’s height, for example, assuming adequate nutrition, is highly heritable at 85 percent, the same level as the heritability of schizophrenia (p. 22). Perhaps more surprising, traits such as personality and religiosity also have a significant genetic component, at 50 percent and between 25–45 percent, respectively. By contrast, there is no heritable component whatsoever for one’s speech accent, which is determined solely by hearing the speech of others, more often by a child’s imitating the speech of peers than of parents (p. 31).
But each trait like height, schizophrenia, personality, or religiosity is determined not by a single gene but rather by many hundreds of them. Claims for an “IQ gene” or “empathy gene,” Linden points out, are “nonsense” (p. 33). Because the genome is not a “blueprint” but a “recipe jotted down on the back of an envelope,” gene expression is “exquisitely regulated” and human individuality therefore inevitable:
Genes can be turned on and turned off in different cell types, at different times, in response to all forms of experience—from hormonal fluctuations to infection to electrical activity from the sense organs. The regulation of gene expression, over both the short and long term, is the crucial place where genes and experience interact to forge human individuality. (p. 39)
Identical twins are not born with identical bodies nor with identical fingerprints. Neither, Linden points out, do they
smell exactly the same. Well-trained sniffer dogs can reliably distinguish between the body odor of identical twins. . . . Genetically identical twins, raised in the same household, will still show differences in both physical and behavioral traits. . . . People married to one member of an identical twin pair rarely find themselves romantically attracted to their spouse’s twin. And this lack of spark is mutual: few identical twins are attracted to their co-twin’s spouse. (p. 54)
As neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell puts it, “If you or I were cloned 100 times, the result would be 100 new individuals, each one of a kind” (Mitchell, 2018, as cited in Linden, 2020, p. 55).Footnote 2We are like no other.
A couple of months prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and during a winter break between semesters, I went to the Philadelphia Zoo to wander. When our daughters were younger, our family would often go there, but as they grew older, I had to own up to the fact that I was enjoying the zoo more than they were. As it became harder to coax them to go, I just started going by myself. I always feel better being there and need, often enough, to feel better.
I discovered during this visit that no one goes to the zoo on a 30-degree Wednesday in January. About five other patrons and I had the whole place to ourselves. After a couple of hours, I wanted, as always, to check in on the gorillas and wandered into the vast primate building, a place usually bustling with children and families but now a ghost town—just me, a four-hundred-pound gorilla named Louis, and a volunteer docent named Bill. The three of us talked gorilla without interruption for a good 30 minutes.
I learned that Bill was a retired high school biology teacher who every Wednesday for the previous 15 years had come to talk with visitors about the zoo’s seven gorillas. Since Christmas and New Year’s Day had fallen on the two Wednesdays prior to my visit and since at that time those were two of only four holidays that the zoo closed all year, Bill said he had really missed the gorillas and had been eager to get back to them that day. He loved his gorillas. At one point I asked him what was the most important thing he had learned about gorillas after watching them every Wednesday for 15 years. He replied without hesitation, “Each gorilla is an individual."
Bill’s answer reminded me of Mr. Flood, a Dublin zookeeper I had read about decades earlier and mentioned in the introduction to Images of Pastoral Care (Dykstra, 2005). Mr. Flood was known for a record of unusual success in the difficult task of breeding lions. When asked the secret of his success, Mr. Flood replied, “Understanding lions.” Asked in what consists the understanding of lions, he said, “Every lion is different” (Wisdom, 1965, p. 138, as cited in Dykstra, 2005, p. 8).
The emphasis on individual difference in the responses of Bill, the Philadelphia Zoo gorilla docent, and of Mr. Flood, the Dublin Zoo lion breeder, reminded me in turn of the work of Barbara McClintock, a geneticist who in 1982 became the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But the work for which she won the Nobel Prize—that of the transposition of genes from one part of the chromosome to another in Indian corn—had been completed nearly 40 years earlier. For 10 years beginning in the 1950s, McClintock tried to communicate her findings to other geneticists, who were baffled by and ridiculed her claims. So, she simply gave up trying to communicate her findings and spent the remainder of her long career in almost total isolation in her lab at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, working six days a week, 12 hours a day, almost exclusively with corn. As I put it previously:
At the heart of McClintock’s genius, her biographer . . . concluded, lay a passion for individual difference. McClintock [said], “The important thing is to develop the capacity to see one kernel [of an ear of Indian corn] that is different, and make that understandable. If something doesn’t fit, there’s a reason, and you find out what it is.” McClintock believed that the prevailing focus on classification and numbers blinded geneticists of her era to individual difference. . . . In their enthusiasm for what [she] called “counting,” her colleagues “too often overlooked the single aberrant kernel.”
How did McClintock come to grasp genetic mysteries that eluded others? She did so, she said, by taking time to look, by waiting to hear what the material itself had to say, striving for what she called a “feeling for the organism.” “One must understand how it grows, understand its parts, understand when something is going wrong with it. . . . You need to know those plants well enough that if anything changes, you [can] look at the plant and right away you know what this damage you see is from. . . . You need to have a feeling for every individual plant.” (Dykstra, 2001, pp. 80–81, citing Keller, 1983, pp. xxi, 97, 102, 198)
Bill the gorilla docent, Mr. Flood the lion breeder, and Barbara McClintock the seer of Indian corn reminded me in turn of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister beloved for his eponymous children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the importance to Rogers of attending to each individual child through the camera’s lens. As communications professor Mark J. P. Wolf (2017) puts it, “Unlike many children’s television shows, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did more than simply entertain or occupy children’s attention; it educated them in the affective domain, encouraging such things as appreciation for difference, collaboration, self-expression, and self-worth” (p. 3). Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David McCullough finds a similar message in Rogers: “Fred Rogers is a teacher . . . And what is he teaching? How to count to ten? No! How to name all the capitals in the United States? No! Here’s what he’s teaching: ‘You are like nobody else. There is only one person in the world like you, and . . . people can like you exactly the way you are’” (as cited in Wolf, 2017, p. 5).
Eliot Daley, a former producer and writer for the Neighborhood who now attends the church where I worship, contrasted for me the recent movie in which Tom Hanks portrayed Fred Rogers to the documentary about Rogers released a year or so before. Daley said that journalist Tom Junod, who was portrayed in the Tom Hanks movie,
really “got” Fred in so many ways, and the film about his engagement with Fred (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) is wonderful in ways that the outstanding documentary from last year (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) was emphatically not. In short, the documentary was almost misleading about why/how Fred had the effect he did on children, as it had a lot of footage of Fred at PBS stations surrounded by preschoolers on what we/they called “Mister Rogers Days.”
But those were rare events, and you could never see [Fred] with a child on the program itself—for the simple reason that the program never had one on set. It was Fred 1:1 with the viewing child at home. . . . The [Tom] Hanks film is so much more revealing of the EFFECT that Fred had on those with whom he engaged. . . . [In that film] we see Fred working his work with an adult like us; the movie is all about that effect, and if we bother, we can then project the effect onto what must have been happening when a child engaged him through the program. Like any true “catalyst,” Fred occasions a response and transformation of elements . . . not evident in the resulting entity. (E. Daley, personal correspondence, January 8, 2020)
Wolf, McCullough, and Daley are all saying in their ways that Mister Rogers wanted children to know that each of them was like no other. He wanted adults to know this, too. He came to this knowledge—in keeping with the counsel of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Jack Frost, Domingo Martinez, Frederick Buechner, and Maya Angelou—by summoning courage to go back again and again to his own painful childhood past, a time, he said, when he cried to himself whenever he was alone (see Hollingsworth, 2005, pp. 125–26). One’s uniqueness, in other words, derives in large part from one’s experiences of trauma. As Kluckholn and Murray (1948), referring to these unpredictable “accidents” of development, put it:
A child gets lost in the woods and suffers from hunger and exposure. Another child is nearly drowned by a sudden flood in a canyon. Another loses his mother and is reared by an aged grandmother, or his father remarries and his education is entrusted to a stepmother with a psychopathic personality. Although the personalities of children who have experienced a trauma of the same type will often resemble each other in certain respects, the differences between them may be even more apparent, partly because the traumatic situation in each case had certain unique features, and partly because at the time of the trauma the personality of each child, being already unique, responded in a unique manner. (p. 37)
Fred Rogers, asked at one point to address professional ophthalmologists on how to help children overcome their fear of eye surgeries, began by telling them, “You were a child once, too . . . Just as each physician is a unique person, so is each child patient and each child’s parent” (Breck et al., 2013). He was encouraging the doctors to go back, to reclaim childhood memories, to remember.
I have lingered at greater length on this third truth—that we are like no other—in part because I think it comes closest to the language of the soul. Each of the aspects of the threefold typology—that we are like all others; like some others; like no other—is vitally important and should be held in tension with the other two. But the truths that we are like all others and like some others ring closer for me to the language of the spirit, the language of the heart and mind, the language of the upper regions of the body and the celestial reaches of the heavens—where in rare but welcome mystical moments we find ourselves caught up in our oneness with all creation and in harmonious communion with all persons everywhere or, at least and as important, with some persons somewhere.
The truth that we are like no other, on the other hand, comes closer for me to the language and experience of the soul, of having to come back down from the mountaintop and into the valley of the shadow of death—the language and experience of one’s gut, one’s core, one’s childhood, one’s traumas, one’s center.