It has been a long time since I have had the time, combined with a strong need, to write something for The Deep End. This week provided both, when the fury of Sandy-the-Super-Storm shut down a surprising amount of what passes for normal on our continent. Yes, lots of us –most of us—were outside the storm path, but given the importance to our country of the Northeast coastal states, there has been something of an enforced pause. Many people who meant to fly somewhere ended up somewhere else, or not flying at all. The power grid that we so fully depend on proved once again to be fragile in the face of wind and water, and the edges of our country that looked one way on Google Earth one day looked very different the next. It isn’t a disruption that can be ignored.
“What passes for normal.” It’s a phrase that the storm washed up in my mind the way it washed boats onto railroad tracks and shoved cars into a tangle in lower Manhattan parking garages. As a person who now looks for what there is to be grateful for in any given situation, I am still hugely challenged by the Big Bad Events that are occurring with apparently greater and greater frequency on our planet. One can, of course, be grateful that any one of those events hasn’t happened to us personally (not only did the storm pass us by, but our kids and grandkids in New Jersey and NYC came through it okay). Still that doesn’t feel enough in the face of images of people who very much are NOT okay.
In the thirty-plus years I’ve been paying particular attention to extremely bright kids, one of the things that I’ve noticed and written about is their tendency to question what passes for normal, often because what passes for normal (the expectation about who they should be and how they should function for instance) doesn’t work for them. But that isn’t the only reason they question it. They notice that what passes for normal doesn’t work for others, either.
One of the reasons super bright kids are at risk for an early experience of existential depression is that they’re able to conceptualize how the world ought to be, and are aware, from their own observation or the daily news stories, of how far from that ideal it really is. They may see that adults—the people who “run the world”—either somehow don’t notice the gap between ideal and real, or don’t care enough or aren’t smart enough to fix it. That can be really scary. From global issues of war, poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, animal cruelty to unfairness in the classroom and bullying on the playground, these are all, to one degree or another, considered normal and the kids are aware of and upset by that.
When far away catastrophes happen, child psychologists are often quoted in the media, advising parents to assure frightened or upset children that those bombs or that earthquake or those wildfires won’t come near them, won’t take their houses or their loved ones or their pets. But even very, very young highly gifted kids are not frightened and upset solely about themselves! They are upset for those these catastrophes really are happening to. Many of these children feel connected to the other beings in the world, from people to animals and plants. They seem from the beginning to “get it” that when one strand of the web of life is stretched or broken, the whole web is affected.
For this reason I have often called these children the “necessary other,” the individuals in our species who are able to perceive in new ways, invent new possibilities, demand changes in what isn’t working, because they see and feel what isn’t working.
But the other night, when I was lying awake worrying about how the city of New York and the northeastern states faced with such immense destruction were going to be able to make things work again, an image came into my mind of strands of light reaching from person to person all across the country, gathering in all those places affected by the storm and providing more light and warmth in that cold darkness. Some strands were very, very thin, no more substantial than spider webs, some were larger and brighter. But there were a great many of them–millions
It came to me quite clearly that human beings are social animals by their very nature. When we see images of other beings in pain, we have an innate impulse to reach out, to help, to share resources. The images that come to us from the devastation of something as massive as that storm are not just images of destruction, they are also images of people helping each other. Some of those helpers are workers who have chosen to be the first responders to trauma, but many—probably most, many of whom don’t get on camera—are just people who see a need and choose to help.
Maybe it isn’t so much that these super-sensitive kids are “other,” but that they develop those deeply human impulses early and powerfully, and insist on expressing them. As with the other over-excitabilities, their empathy is aroused by a smaller stimulus and affects them more deeply over longer periods of time than is true of other kids, or even of many adults.
During the cold war when there was a great deal of fear in this country about a possible nuclear war with Russia, it was discovered that children’s fears could be alleviated a bit if they saw their parents or caregivers taking some kind of action, however small, in favor of cooperation and peace. This is a time to do whatever we can to show that we are “doing something” to help the people whose lives have been devastated. For some of us it can be contributing money to relief agencies, or helping to organize fund-raisers. Kids can help with any and all of this and get a sense of empowerment.
But there are other ways of “doing something” as well. One way is to reframe the whole story for our children. We can point out all the examples of people helping people. We can assure them that even though what passes for normal among humans may have flaws and compromises, this species they belong to has a deep impulse to cooperate, to share, to care! When a strand of the web is broken there is always a rush to repair it. Not every single individual may be willing to put another’s needs first even when catastrophe occurs. But many do, and the light of their willingness to help, like a single candle in a big, dark room, pushes back the shadows a bit. Every “strand of light,” of caring, that reaches from one person to another is real and has an effect, even if we can’t always see it. As The Little Prince tells us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”