Uniqueness

19 May

Sometimes (maybe in some ways always) this blog gets personal even though I write it as an advocate. But today it becomes very personal. So skip it if that bothers you.

Today I write as a highly gifted, highly creative, highly sensitive kid currently living inside the body of a grandmother. Please understand that I am writing to the highly gifted kids in you adults who are reading here, as well as the highly gifted kids in your lives for whom you are advocates. Two days ago I went to see the new movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, a profoundly mathematically gifted young Hindu man who gave the world mathematical formulas that are still, 100 years after his death at age 32, helping scientists to understand the universe we live in.

I happened to be alone in the theater when I saw it (though it was sold out when I tried to go on Sunday) and I had to sit in my seat all the way through the very long credits before getting up to leave because I didn’t want to be seen crying in the lobby. Since then I’ve read various reviews of the mpatel-ironsovie by film critics and mathematicians and they grump about various aspects of the movie, from Dev Patel being thin and gorgeous (well, truth be told, that’s my word—the words the reviewer used meant close to the same thing) when the real young man was chubby, to inaccuracies in the back story, to the fact that Jeremy Irons, who plays Ramanujan’s mentor, is “too old” for the part. This last is explained by the fact that it took 10 years to get funding for the film because it was clear that it wasn’t going to be mainstream and popular. Well, duh! It is about a young man who was one of the world’s most exceptional minds.

There are various reasons I cried at the end—the most obvious of which is that Ramanujan, though finally having had his mind and his work accepted, dies in the end. But more than that is the same reason I cried in “The Imitation Game” (about Turing) when the brilliant young woman tells Turing how much having found an intellectual equal means to her. Both movies show vividly how the world treats the profoundly gifted whose ideas, thoughts, and behaviors are very much outside of “the norms.”

The highly creative and highly sensitive parts of me are easily triggered. I live stories I encounter that touch on human emotional realities, and I feel them deeply. I always have. I cried on and off for two whole weeks after reading The Yearling when I was nine. I have not (and will not, it seems) outgrow that. It can be a challenge sometimes to live that way.

Also, recently, I posted on FB that I’ve been re-watching the first season of HBO’s dramatic series, “The Newsroom,” by Aaron Sorkin while riding my stationary bike. I suggested that everyone disturbed by the current political climate in this country might want to see those early episodes, where Sorkin pretty much predicted the state we’re in today and showed us how we were on our way to getting here. Today, again, watching the fifth episode, I found myself in tears. Emotional overexcitability causes that, plus the frustration of feeling myself (like the main characters in the show) far outside of popular culture and all too aware of and pained by the current chaos.

It is mostly for these reasons that I have become so great an advocate for finding a way to meet the spiritual needs of our gifted kids, for understanding that their hearts are in as great need of understanding and support as their heads. This is perhaps the greatest asynchrony of all, the need our cheetahs and mermaids/mermen have for heart-felt meaning in their lives. For some this is a need answered by religion. For many others it is a need almost totally unrecognized. As Viktor Frankl said, in Man’s Search for Meaning, if one has a “why” to live, one can bear with almost any “how.”

Neither “spirituality” nor “meaning” are mentioned in “The Newsroom,” but they are actually the driving force (presented as morality and ethics) behind the series itself. There is an emphasis on caring, on humanity, on connection, on—as the Dalai Lama would say—kindness. However short we humans fall in meeting our best intentions in these areas, the effort is essential.

As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” here is what Preston Wilder, reviewing it for the Cyprus Mail, said that captures what moved me the most about this movie:  “The film works best as a moral/mystical debate – process vs. intuition, Man vs. God. GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) is the Cambridge professor who becomes Ramanujan’s mentor – and Hardy is a proud atheist (though it may be more accurate to say, as his protégé puts it, that ‘you do believe in God, you just don’t think He likes you’), trusting only in science. ‘It’s the only truth I know; it’s my church,’ he declares – but the film contrasts his insistence on supplying proofs for everything with Ramanujan’s trust in fully-formed truths emerging intuitively, and it also opens with Bertrand Russell’s dictum that ‘Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty’. Maths is an artform (our hero says his equations are ‘like a painting’), possessed of beauty and quasi-mystical origins. ‘How do you know?’ asks a bewildered prof when Ramanujan solves a problem out of thin air. ‘I don’t know,’ comes the reply; ‘I just do’. Richard Dawkins [the “militant atheist”] can’t be very happy with this movie.”

For Ramanujan, a Hindu, his religion is the vessel for meaning, and for Hardy meaning comes through mathematics itself. But even Hardy’s atheism and insistence on proofs must finally allow for both mystery and meaning in the workings of Ramanujan’s extraordinary mind.

There are plenty of reviews out there about this movie with plenty of quibbles. But I wish all those people who suggest that the very idea of giftedness is elitist, that “all children are gifted” or that extraordinary contributions to human knowledge could be made by nearly anyone who “practices” 10,000 hours or more and has plenty of grit, would see it. Ramanujan had an inborn, unique–and let us remember that the meaning of unique is not just “different” but “one of a kind”–mind with a unique passion. There is deep, if deeply mysterious meaning in humanity’s infinite variety-within-oneness, in our individual differences.

5 Responses to “Uniqueness”

  1. Marie May 20, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    Good post, and honest (thank you.) Intuition, strong inner knowing, and spontaneous thinking can be one of the first things to get stomped out when the gifted feel out of step with the thinking of their world. It can take decades to recover the inner strength to be fully oneself as well as to forgive oneself for succumbing in the first place. To arrive where you started and to know the place for the first time … maybe the gift in giftedness.

    • Stef May 23, 2016 at 11:19 am #

      Sorry not to have replied sooner, Marie. My computer decided to quit on me (on a day I had a Skype call with a class of fifth graders scheduled! — thank goodness for speaker phones) and I couldn’t get to a functioning keyboard before now.

      “It can take decades to recover…” Yes, indeed. And I appreciate as well your sense of the need to forgive oneself. The world is hard on those with a different way of seeing things, and children are given a story about what is “okay” and expected that is given to them, not as “story” but as reality. Trusting one’s own awareness when it conflicts with that of the world at large is a challenging process and it’s no wonder most of us take so long to come back around to it.

  2. Lea Stublarec May 20, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

    Stephanie, I always look forward to your posts which provide me with a context for deep thinking and at the same time touch my soul. Thank you. I’ve been pondering the issues of giftedness and drive recently–one motivator being watching my 20 month old granddaughter (my first) pursue one of her passions–“BUGS”! She enlists all of us in the hunt and it seems she finds the process (digging) more fascinating at times than the product (typically a doodle bug or spider). We live in the Palo Alto community that’s received lots of press regarding the high rate of adolescent suicides in the past few years and it’s truly heart-breaking to drive past the security guards stationed at the train tracks when school starts and ends to protect our precious offspring. The knee-jerk reaction is often ‘parent bashing’ but I believe the crisis is much more complex–involving some sad mix of pressure from the parents, peers, community and society and in some cases the teen herself. Which brings me back to drive…..and your post that stresses the importance of focusing on our gifted kids’ spiritual needs. As Annemarie Roeper stated: ‘drive is emotional’ (the motivation for learning, for inner growth, for self actualization is emotional and is in the heart). So it seems that the drive of our highly gifted needs to be treated with kid gloves by all those involved in nurturing passion. In many instances, we over-pressure, leading to killing drive, or try to re-direct it into whatever’s considered the most marketable or ‘most needed’ by society currently (like STEM or I guess now it’s STEAM)……or what I did as a mom trying to ‘protect’ my highly gifted older daughter–we try to encourage more ‘down time’ to relieve stress, not appreciating that the passion to create in our bright children needs to be allowed to soar unconstrained…..I look forward to seeing “The Man Who Knew Infinity” with my daughter (a mathematician). One can hope that by sharing the lives of these beautiful minds on the big screen our culture will appreciate the need to embrace giftedness and differences.

    • Stef May 23, 2016 at 11:32 am #

      A very heart felt response, Lea. Thank you. We who raise and were and care about gifted kids walk a tightrope always and there is a great deal riding on whether we get the balance “right.” We can never know for sure, nor predict with any certainty the outcome of our best efforts. (This is the reason I long ago wrote “You Can’t Do it Wrong,” http://www.stephanietolan.com/can't_do_it_wrong.htm — also in my new book Out of Sync) We need to trust in our caring and our intention to do the best we can in every moment. But the pressures are huge, on us and the kids, pressures from both inside and out. We can’t make the world “safe” for them, but we can nurture our own trust in their (and our) resilience. Hence the need for meaning. There can be meaning in the toughest of times as well as in the joys and delights. Gratitude for whatever gives us joy or beauty hope in any moment helps!

  3. Paula Prober May 24, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    Thank you for this, Stef. I will go see the film. And cry.

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