Malcolm X, Psychologist: The Hammer of Life

How life experiences interact with biology.

Posted May 22, 2020

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Malcolm X was an excellent psychologist.

In Remembering Malcolm, written by his aide Benjamin Karim, we read this story about how Malcolm X educated his closest disciples about life:

“Survival, he taught all of us in the restaurant that day, requires discipline, spiritual fiber, all your wits, and resourcefulness ... He compared life to a hammer and human beings to metal and glass. A hammer that beats upon metal can forge it into a bowl or tool or some other useful instrument, he said, but a hammer that beats upon glass shatters it into thousands of fragments and splinters.

A lifetime hammers what we are made of into what we are.”

This metaphor is an excellent explanation of what researchers call gene-environment interaction.  We tend to think about nature and nurture, genes/biology and environment, as if they are two different and separate things. In many aspects of human behavior, though, nature and nurture interact. If you have different genetics or biology from the next person, the same environment will have a different effect on you. That’s what Malcolm X was explaining.

And if you don't have the biology of metal, then you can try to get as much of it as you can, to work on yourself so that what you are strengthens in the face of life's hammer.  You're given a biology and genetics but you can change its effects somewhat by what you learn from life, and how you forge your character. 

The metaphor of a hammer for life may seem harsh. It may be so, in fact. Life can be very hard. But a hammer can also be small, or ping lightly, as when a sculptor is making small changes to a bust.  Life can hurt you with strong hits of a hammer, and it can form you into something better with light pings. It matters just as much that to which you expose yourself, and how you react to it.

It matters who we are, what we’re made of, what our biology and genetics are; it also matters what we experience. Many people, especially among the standard elites of writers and journalists and commentators, want to ignore the former for the latter. They can’t accept, for instance, that having manic-depressive illness might be an important key to being a great crisis leader, as opposed to standard social and cultural explanations. They fear biology and overrate their own control over themselves. They thereby misunderstand themselves, and more importantly, miss the chance to engage with life experiences in a way that will make them better. 

Become who you are, Nietzsche said, a phrase that has enough meanings to protect the complexity of the idea. 

A lifetime hammers what you’re made of into what you are. That’s an idea worth pondering.