Nature or Nurture?

Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.

Roger Crawford

We all encounter misfortune at some point in our lives. But, turning that misfortune into fortune, however, is not something everyone is able to do. While some tend to possess that ‘certain something’ that enables them to move past their traumatic event or circumstance, others continue to dwell on their tragedy, virtually imprisoned by their experience. All of which left me with the question, what is that certain something?

Is it character? Is it courage? And if so, how did they come to it? Were they shaped by their earlier life, or an inspiring parent or adult? Did the same training and discipline that inspired their pursuit of success in the first place, also prepare them for the obstacles that would inevitably follow?

Or is it something they were born with? The lifelong question…
was it nature or nurture? I assumed it was a combination, but with strong leanings to the latter. I could not speak to the genetic make-up of any of the individuals I spoke with. But we could certainly discuss their character, their training, of their earlier life experiences.

Perhaps, one of the most dramatic and courageous individuals I interviewed was, at the time, a twenty-two-year-old Iranian named Amir Mostame. In 2013, Amir was a bright, energetic, and innovative college student who had written papers and created multiple inventions. He was studying biomedical engineering in Malaysia and given various safety and immigration issues, decided to go to Australia to capitalize on his creations.

As his boat arrived in Australia, the immigrants were told that there had been a change in the country’s immigration policy and that all immigrants who arrived after the date of July 19th would be sent to a processing center in Papua, New Guinea on Manus Island. He and his fellow passengers felt they were not affected, as they arrived on that exact date. However, before they disembarked, they were told they would have to remain on the boat overnight, thus subjecting him and his fellow emigres to the new policy.

Instead of disembarking in Australia, the following day, on his twentieth birthday, he and his shipmates were detoured to New Guinea, and ultimately to the Manus Island detention facility. The country’s immigration crack-down resulted in the young Iranian being detained indefinitely in what was described as Australia’s version of the American detention facility in Cuba, Guantanamo Bay. That extra night on the boat was the difference between reaching his destination in Australia and a prolonged prison stay under inhumane and violent conditions.

Amir Mostame was an ambitious Iranian studying biomedical engineering. At his young age, he had already created several inventions. He had submitted papers for an international conference in Austria. By all accounts, he was a bright, rising intellect that, up to that point, had enjoyed a good life. He was enroute to continue his studies and seek sales and distribution channels for his inventions. But by virtue of being detained on a ship for one extra day, he was being imprisoned on an island in New Guinea, not knowing what fate awaited him. That intellect and unlimited ambition would be challenged in unspeakable ways.

Weeks on the island turned to months. The detainees were being held in limbo indefinitely, in a prison with uninhabitable sanitary conditions. The guards were not only uncaring, but treated their captives ruthlessly. Tensions grew and eventually boiled over into a series of prison riots and disturbances which turned violent. Inmates were injured, tortured and killed. The plight of the studious Iranian turned from one of patience to one of survival. He watched as many of his detainees suffered injuries and death at the hands of their captors. The once bright, creative engineering student was now living as a prisoner with no foreseeable change.

Over a three-year period, he watched as fellow inmates were beaten, tortured, and killed. Others died of diseases from the uninhabitable conditions.

Less than a year into his confinement, on an early morning in 2014, eighty to a hundred local people of Manus Island showed up in front of the entrance to the compound armed with machetes and sticks. They kicked down the door and stormed into the compound. The police invaded the compound as well. Instead of protecting the inmates, they joined the islanders in the assault, thus providing the inhabitants of the prison no protection.

Amir, who described the day as one of the most horrendous in his life, was beaten unconcious. More than sixty other prisoners were severely beaten as well and others killed

The riot was later captured in a film titled, Nowhere Line: Voices from Manus.

A year later, while still dealing with his injuries from the riot, Amir was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Given the poor conditions and medical treatment of the facilities, he was left further in limbo, not knowing if the tumor that had been discovered was cancerous or not. At the age of twenty-two, the young engineering student was living under horrid conditions, isolated in a detention facility thousands of miles from his home, and now confronted face-to-face with his own mortality.

As I listened to him describe his circumstances, my thoughts went to the question, ‘What would I do if I were stranded on another planet, under inhumane conditions, with a group of strangers I had never met, and learning I potentially had a life-threatening disease?’ I concluded I would not be judged harshly, given that set of circumstances, if I were to wallow in self-pity or even attempt to commit suicide.

Apparently, Amir had neither of those thoughts. Instead, he reduced his fate down to two possible outcomes: One, he could dwell on the tragedy and the misfortune of his situation every day, and wait to die. Or, he could resign himself to the possibility that he had six months to live, ignore his plight as if it did not exist, and make the best of those final six months. Fortunately, he chose the latter.

He told me, ‘It was tough to not think about something that is bothering you so much. The reason that I just decided to not think about it anymore is that I accepted reality. I saw that the tumor as something that I’ve got, but to think about it all day long doesn’t help me. I could have been thinking about why am I so unlucky, and all of these terrible things are happening to me? But I decided to confront my reality head-on. I thought, okay, there is nothing sure in life. Life is what it is. I can’t change anything. I’m sure that some people are in much more awful circumstances and environment than me. Some people got much more severe problems than I do. I just decided to start living in the present, which means I appreciate everything that I have right now. ‘

At his young age, he became a mentor and source of inspiration to his fellow inmates, most of whom were ten, twenty and thirty years his elder. He taught them English. He taught himself to play the guitar. He devoted himself, not to the plight and ordeal he was suffering, but to the service of those whose circumstances were even more dire than his own.

When I asked him how he remained so positive and focused throughout his ordeal, he said, ‘I’ve been here three years, three to four years. I’ve had this life, but this is not the end of my life. One day I’ll be out of here. And I want to be physically and mentally healthy when I get out of here. So, every day I have to focus on whatever I can to just be physically and mentally healthy
when that day comes.

That day finally came. It turned out his tumor was benign, but he would not know that for months. He made the choice not to dwell on his own unknown fate, but instead to be of service to those who could benefit from his help. After spending six years on Manus Island under inhumane, uninhabitable, and violent conditions, he was finally released.

Today Amir Mostame continues his dream in the Los Angeles, and learning new things, like how to play ‘Hotel California’ on the guitar. Like our earlier discussion regarding success, I’ll leave it to the social scientists to provide a more definitive answer on the subject, but from my small sampling, their genetic make-up certainly was a factor in their accomplishments, but the overwhelming factors tended to be not what they were born with, but what they developed.

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