No Less Than the Trees and the Stars

7 May

In the more than thirty years I have written and spoken about the needs of gifted children and adults, I have shared a lot of my personal life. But after the last piece I wrote for this blog (December 2012) that life began to disintegrate, as did my ability to turn it into anything that would seem helpful to other people. Between April and July of 2013 I lost my husband of 49 years and the oldest two of our four sons.

Shell-shocked, I withdrew from the world except for a few obligations: Yunasa, the Institute for Educational Advancement’s camp for highly gifted kids and speaking as a member of the Columbus Group about Asynchronous Development at the World Council’s Conference in Louisville.

At that conference the argument between those (like the Columbus Group) who focus on giftedness as a developmental process innate to out-of-the-ordinary individuals (the child-centered view) and those who perceive giftedness as achievement leading to success, fame, fortune or eminence (achievement that is at least theoretically possible to anyone willing and able to work hard enough to beat out the competition and collect the rewards) suddenly seemed both especially virulent and especially ludicrous.

As I drove the eight hours home from Louisville, the positions within that argument and my whole history of writing and speaking about the gifted began a kind of slow dance in my mind and heart with the three lives in my family that had just ended. Something fundamental in my way of looking at the culture within which we live, was changing—had changed. It has been many months since then, but it feels as if I may have grasped enough of the change now to share it—I’m still a writer, after all, and this is what I do.

Always before, as I thought and wrote about the needs of gifted children and adults, I envisioned, as maybe most of us do, life stretching out from birth to something akin to infinity. Never mind that all of us claim to know the certainty of death. We tend to be woefully unprepared for its visitation. It shocks us with the cessation of a process we cannot somehow grasp as “finished.” We are left picking up shattered fragments of some picture that there just wasn’t time to complete, trying to decide what its meaning can have been now that it is over—there are no more choices to be made, nothing to add, no new turning or opportunity to watch for. What meaning was there, and how much of that meaning had to do with racking up awards or recognition, financial success or lack of it, children to carry on a name or a family vision? Consider these three lives:

Life Number One

When we were married in 1964 my husband was a professor of theatre with three sons, ages 2, 3 and 4. He was in the process of completing his doctorate and we expected to build a nice, secure future in academia. Six years later, when the structure of the academic world began to constrain his creativity, he left college teaching for the uncertainties and risk of work in the professional theatre. It was amidst those uncertainties that our son, the fourth Tolan male, was born. Over time, through plenty of ups and downs, my husband became well known in the regional theatre world as a director, manager, producer and idea person, and he went on teaching from time to time. Actors tended to love working with him. Though he eventually retired from both directing and teaching, the young actors he had worked with in his early years still regularly appear—as senior citizens now, of course—in television, film and theatre. At his memorial service many people (both actors and former students) told of how his faith in them, his ability to spot, encourage and trust innate talent, and his passion for sharing his love of theatre had helped to shape their careers.

Life Number Two

The first born son was a clear example from early childhood of the gifted, hard-working, disciplined and organized achiever. With a clear view of what he wanted in life, he moved steadily and successfully through his many years of education, took on the financial burden of a superior medical school, studied abroad, and became an eminent pediatric infectious disease specialist, researcher and educator, widely known and steadily published in the major journals. He was brilliant, but also caring enough to give his cell phone number to the families of his patients and to his colleagues alike. His much sought-after advice was available 24/7. When he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in July at the age of 52, he was working at three hospitals and well on his way to being nationally recognized as one of the clear leaders in his field. The often repeated message delivered at his memorial was that it would take many individual doctors now to fill the gap his death had left in his field.

Life Number Three

The second son (age 51 when he succumbed to esophageal cancer in April) was a caring “people person,” who seemed, from earliest childhood, “allergic” to competition. Always available to lend a hand to someone in need, or to rescue an animal and provide it a home, he majored in Religious Studies and Political Science at Indiana University. While working in food service during high school, he had discovered a love for cooking, and after college (following his father’s example of daring to follow a dream that did not guarantee either financial or job security) opened a restaurant—a time he often said was the happiest in his life, cooking good food for hungry and appreciative people. After an economic downturn that resulted in his restaurant’s closing, though he found a variety of ways to be of service, he never managed to get a handle on worldly success, let alone fame or fortune. A cousin, however, once called him the kindest person she had ever met. In the varied work he did over his lifetime he was loved and admired by the people whose lives he touched.

What would the argument about innate gifts vs. worldly accomplishment have to say about these three lives? All three showed the sort of asynchronous development typical of the gifted in the Columbus Group frame of reference. But which of them would the world have recognized as gifted? And which of them would claim the term for themselves?

I ask now, what, finally, does it matter? Life matters. Individuals, in all their complexity, matter.

As for whether a person, looking back on his life, would consider himself a “success,” no one else could possibly know. For everyone life is a series of peaks and valleys. What looks like a valley of failure from the outside might be felt as one of life’s greatest successes once survived and moved through. And some of the peaks of success as viewed from the outside might have felt barren and meaningless once achieved. Achieving “success” must finally have to do with the individual’s own goals, wishes, dreams, visions and passions.

I recently sent a message to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of UnGifted (a book with two subtitles: “Intelligence Redefined” and “The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness”) to congratulate him on the book and tell him that I think his definition of intelligence, is the best and most inclusive I’ve ever seen. But that second subtitle takes me back to the cultural worldview that 2013 shattered for me irrevocably. “Paths to Greatness.” Hiding there is that cultural sense that an individual’s worth has to do with finding a path to recognizable achievement: greatness. It is not just that we think of ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings,” it is that we want or expect ourselves and those we care about to do something others would recognize as “great.”

We’ve all heard the saying that life is a journey, not a destination. And yet how many of us live each day of our own lives as if that were true, looking for meaning and joy in the steps of the journey, open to our own loves and passions, trusting that whatever someone else may say of us, however someone else judges us, we both know and value who we are in ourselves?

And which way of looking at life are we sharing with the children we live or work with?

When Guiding the Gifted Child was published way back in 1982, it included the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. (I don’t remember for sure, but suspect it was Betty Meckstroth’s idea to include it.) A bit of that poem is what I want to share here: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

If we are to have something truly worthwhile to offer children, it seems to me it needs to be not just child-centered (yes, we need to see them as who they are, not who we expect them to be or become), but life-centered. We humans have vast individual differences, which is, arguably, how we have survived on this planet as long we have. As I said at the end of my cheetah piece all those years ago, life here operates on the principle of bio-diversity. Every difference has a place. Every life has meaning. Every life.

Will it be a meaning the children themselves will be able to recognize and value? Are we supporting them in that? Do we even know how to support them in that?

I suspect it has to start with the assurance that each of them has a right to be here, has a value to the larger story of humanity on Earth, no matter how like or unlike others they feel they are, whether they feel they fit or not, and no matter how long or short their time here may be. They surely need to see themselves as the hero of their own story. They have an innate right to make their own meaning of it, starting with who they are and what they love. What they do with that should grow from it, not be imposed from outside, or chosen to provide some external proof of their worth.

What can any other success or label, fame or fortune offer? If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?

24 Responses to “No Less Than the Trees and the Stars”

  1. Wenda Sheard May 7, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    Thank you, Stephanie. Thank you.

    • Ellen Fiedler May 8, 2014 at 9:21 am #

      Thank you so much, Stef. Your words touched the depths of my heart and soul, reaching into hidden places where my sons will always be. Thank you for giving voice to those deep feelings by sharing yours.

  2. sarah May 7, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    I am so very sorry for your terrible loss. What beautiful people each of your men seemed to be. Thank you for sharing about them with us, and for opening your heart with all its lovely, hard-won wisdom. I wish peace and comfort and happiness to your family.

  3. Dan May 7, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

    I’m so sorry, Stephanie — and grateful. Thank you for sharing your pain and your gifts. There is meaning here.

  4. Sarah May 7, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    Achingly beautiful and heartbreaking.

  5. Christy May 7, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It brought me back to a time when I also refocused my thoughts on the importance of gifted education for my own child. My 5yo was about to enter kindergarten, and I was worried that his educational needs would not be met, so I had several meetings with school staff before school started to figure out what to do with him. All my worries about his education disappeared, however, when he had an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. Now all my worrying focus was on keeping my child alive at school, never mind that he already knew the curriculum. (As it turned out, the school was able to keep my child safe and also provide some differentiation.)

    I think there is a happy medium between the child-centered and achievement focused camps. I would argue that both schools of thought could agree that their end goals could be achieved if each child is met where they are, and challenged from that point. That gives the best opportunity to every kid in the Universe, and doesn’t exclude the gifted, who, as the poem say, “have every right to be here.”

  6. May 7, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

    Thanks you for sharing this significant writing with us. So personal and yet so universal. I appreciated reading this and having the glimpse of insight your sadness has brought you, knowing full well that some form of this same raw grief will be my reality someday as well, no doubt. It’s a realization we can only visit, with hopes of never having to linger there. What a blessing it must have been to be in the center of the circle of those remarkable men. Thank you, too, for all the work you continue to do for our brightest individuals.

    Sent from my iPad


    • Stef May 11, 2014 at 11:41 am #

      Thank you all, and Christy–happy medium indeed. We so often fight each other with “either/or” when the universe is made up of “both/and.”

  7. filixfemina May 7, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your family and your life….and thoughts. I also believe that each individual is worthy in his or her own right of what his or her own life offers.

  8. April May 7, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

    My condolences to you and your family.
    The point you make about the value of a single life, and of every life, is so important. Thank you for writing.

    The fullness of each loss is matched by the fullness of each life. The pain of this loss must be undescribable, I wish you comfort and peace.

  9. lwallin (@lwallin) May 7, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

    I can’t imagine your sorrow, even though I lost my mother last year. You have expressed in your amazing way, what we learn by such losses.

  10. Kathy A. Courchene May 7, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

    Stephanie, my heart goes out to you and your family. I hope that your happy memories will increase in power, and will outnumber and come to fill the spaces among and around the sorrowful ones.
    Peace on your journey.

    • Stef May 14, 2014 at 8:45 am #

      Thank you, Kathy.

  11. Dick van der Wateren May 8, 2014 at 3:01 am #

    Reblogged this on Dick van der Wateren's Blog and commented:
    A deeply touching story by a wise woman. Stephanie S. Tolan lost her husband and two sons, last year. Stef has published about gifted children for many years. After the passing of her loved ones, she shares her thoughts about ‘greatness’ and ‘success’. She ends her impressive story thus:
    “Every difference has a place. Every life has meaning. Every life.

    Will it be a meaning the children themselves will be able to recognize and value? Are we supporting them in that? Do we even know how to support them in that?

    I suspect it has to start with the assurance that each of them has a right to be here, has a value to the larger story of humanity on Earth, no matter how like or unlike others they feel they are, whether they feel they fit or not, and no matter how long or short their time here may be. They surely need to see themselves as the hero of their own story. They have an innate right to make their own meaning of it, starting with who they are and what they love. What they do with that should grow from it, not be imposed from outside, or chosen to provide some external proof of their worth.

    What can any other success or label, fame or fortune offer? If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?”

    Please, also read the ‘About’ page on her blog.

  12. Becky May 8, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    Thank you for a powerful yet gentle picture of what it means to be gifted in the world at a much deeper level than the fiscal balance sheet.

  13. sakfergusonphd May 8, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    Reblogged this on SquarePegsRoundHole and commented:
    Finding “fit” in a society that frequently defines success by what we do rather than by who we are if often difficult. Author and advocate, Stephanie S. Tolan, describes this predicament with aplomb sharing vignettes from her personal history. Working with radically accelerated students, I witness firsthand the push-me/pull-me that students sometimes encounter when the external expectations of the world at-large do not match their internal definitions of success.

  14. rlmcmillan6 May 9, 2014 at 2:25 am #

    Thank you, Stef, for sharing the wisdom your love and losses have planted deep in your soul. May your words take root in all who read them.

  15. Alice Ann Hengesbach May 11, 2014 at 8:50 am #

    Stephanie, your heartfelt and sincere sharing came to me through our mutual friend Dr. Deborah Ruf. I am sending you peace and light as I can only begin to imagine what it is like to have your world ripped apart. I glory in the creative strength of your husband and sons. I am more than grateful for your conviction that “life matters.” I believe that each life brings a gift(s) and it is up to the rest of us to observe and open our hearts in order to enjoy the gifts of those around us. With blessings.

  16. Susan Fenster May 13, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    Stefanie: Thank you for sharing your story and its life lessons. My condolences to you and your family on your tragic losses.

    As a widow raising a now 15yo gifted daughter, I often find myself enjoying the nuggets of advice shared by Max Ehrmann. The line that most often speaks to me as I ponder the choices made by other families — gifted or not — while struggling to redefine “normal” on a daily basis is “If you compare yourself with others as you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

    I’ve taken that lesson to heart, molding new pathways for our journey through life and all its unpredictability.

    Desiderata, to me, is like a prayer turned outward, divinely offering guidance to all who seek it. Thank you for re-introducing it to a generation of readers who may not have found its solace on their own.

    I thank you for honoring the memory of the your husband and two sons by writing such as a heart-felt blog and remind you, as Max does, to “Be gentle with yourself.” We do not always need “to do.” To Be, is wonderful enough,

  17. Shulamit May 20, 2014 at 11:47 pm #

    “If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?”

    Dear Stephanie, your question is so terribly accurate. One of my favorite songs is from the movie, “The Prince of Egypt.” I’m posting the first verse, and the ending…the rest are as worthy. The song is aimed at Moses, who has left Egypt bereft of everything he has built up, and is now worried that he is only a lowly desert wanderer. The singer is Jethro, who becomes his father-in-law. Moses is afraid he is worthless, because he has left his fame and fortune behind. Jethro sees it differently…

    “Through Heaven’s Eyes”


    A single thread in a tapestry-
    Though its color brightly shine-
    Can never see its purpose
    In the pattern of the grand design.

    And the stone that sits on the very top
    Of the mountain’s mighty face-
    Does it think it’s more important
    Than the stones that form the base?

    So how can you see what your life is worth
    Or where your value lies?
    You can never see through the eyes of man
    You must look at your life,
    Look at your life through heaven’s eyes.

    So how do you judge what a man is worth?
    By what he builds or buys?

    You can never see with your eyes on earth-

    Look at your life,
    Look at your life through heaven’s eyes!

    Great parents and great teachers help us see our lives “through heaven’s eyes” and realize, that each of us is “no less than the trees and the stars.”

    We humans are so fragile, so easy to forget that no matter what, “I have value.”

    The lives that you have touched and will touch, are reminded of their value. You help people see their lives through heaven’s eyes. And that is a tremendous gift you give, Stef. May time ease your pain of so much loss. It is so lovely to see you writing here, again.

    • Stef May 29, 2014 at 9:18 am #

      Thank you for sharing those lyrics, Shulamit! And for your own message. Writing will happen again!

  18. valbock June 7, 2019 at 9:31 am #

    Thank you, Stephanie. The Universe decided I needed to find this today. I have been wrestling with this very issue and your words touched me deeply.

    • Stef June 7, 2019 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks, Universe, for leading you there. And thanks to you for the response that led me to read it again myself. I, too, need the reminder from time to time.


  1. Beyond School: Tips for Life Appreciation | Wenda Sheard, J.D. Ph.D. - May 19, 2014

    […] later. My own appreciation of life, amplified recently by Stephanie Tolan’s May 7th essay No Less Than the Trees and the Stars and by young Karina Eide’s May 9th passing, inspire me to share deeply […]

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