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The Body of Humanity

9 Feb

Those of you who already know my writing know that I am fond of metaphors. So ever since I wrote the last post here, in answer to the questions parents were asking about how to help their children cope with the current political situation, I’ve been trying out metaphors in my mind.

This morning I settled on one. Many years ago I faced, on a personal level, an experience that changed the direction of my life and my spiritual priorities ever after. It came from something quite ordinary—a trip to my doctor for a sinus infection. Since I got those infections all the time, it was just business as usual until my doctor, feeling to see if I also had swollen glands, said “Uh-oh.”

A week or two later that “uh-oh” became a cancer diagnosis. Leaping ahead in time, I assure you that my treatment was successful and I’m fine today. But the pathway from there to here became radically different from the pathway I had been on. The “shock and awe” of the experience led to a confrontation with the meaning of life as a deeply spiritual investigation that would have been unlikely in any other way. It was very far outside my previous intellectual approach to such philosophical questions.

Not long after the diagnosis I encountered Dabrowski and began a correspondence with Michael Piechowski, his principal translator, who introduced me to Peace Pilgrim—a “moral exemplar” whose spiritual development had reached the highest level (Level Five) in Dabrowski’s theory of human developmental potential. I began to read all I could find by her and about her and found this quotation, which I have used often since:  “Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe. Your higher self sees you as a cell in the body of humanity.” The metaphor spoke volumes with a simple image and a few words.

In the U.S., and in the world, the Presidential election of 2016 (as apparently ordinary as a sinus infection) turned into a “shock and awe” experience as intense on the political level as my diagnosis was for me personally. It has essentially changed our nation’s path. November 8th/9th shook our complacency like that “Uh-Oh” and presaged something new, totally unexpected, and—for a numerical majority of Americans—extremely scary. In response there has been a sudden, intense marshalling of forces unlike anything (or at least on a scale unlike anything) we’ve seen before.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about all this that casts the “other” as the enemy, but for me that language is uncomfortable. I am all too aware that the words and images we use carry energy, and just now there is an extraordinary level of hostile energy circulating in our shared space, so without wishing to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, I would rather avoid adding to it if at all possible. We’re all human beings coping with circumstances that are new to all of us.

Considering Peace Pilgrim’s metaphor of the “body of humanity,” each of us represents a single cell in that body. We are not identical, and our differences are essential to its structure and function. I’ve been thinking about how cancer makes its destructive way in the body.

Every cell of our physical being focuses on getting what it needs to function, to thrive, to reproduce—in its own favor, and because of interdependency, at the same time in favor of the health of the whole organism. From time to time our bodies produce cancer cells that flourish briefly, but for the most part are dealt with by our immune system before they cause harm to the body’s structure and integrity. What makes cancer cells different is that they begin to act not as part of the whole, but as the “center of the universe,” for themselves alone. They gobble up nutrition, they reproduce, they take over whatever organ has been their origin and then begin to invade the rest of the body, continuing to expand.

cancer-cells

A dividing lung cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

Biologically, this strategy over time is a losing one. If the malfunctioning cells continue their expansion and takeover for too long, they kill the body that gave them birth and nourished their ascendancy. We can see that the cancer cell’s strategy is a malfunction in an organizational pattern that normally serves us well—that is, each cell acting for its own immediate survival, taking what it needs to fulfill its function, reproducing at an appropriate level to keep the larger system flexible, adaptable and working. Medical researchers are constantly looking for the reasons cancer cell malfunction occurs, in order to prevent the destruction it leads to, but the immediate need of the body once the cancer is detected is to stop the proliferation and growth, or to remove the offending cells from the system.

We all seem to be pointing fingers just now, blaming the “selfishness” of individuals who put their own needs first, when in fact, as with cancer, it isn’t that initial desire of each cell to get what it needs that has caused the threat to the system as a whole, but the distortion of cells taking more of the body’s resources than they need, expanding out of control, and interfering with the structures and functions of other cells, organs and systems.

For me, I’m thinking that the sudden sharp turn we’ve taken should not be seen as a war started by one “side” or another, drawing battle lines between them, but as a problem in the entire body system that has been there all along, but that we have failed to fully recognize as life-threatening.

Instead of seeing our differences as essential to the functioning of humanity, we have chosen to use the labels “us” and “them” and to compete with each other. Human beings have been doing this for most of recorded history and have managed not to destroy humanity in the process (though we’ve arguably come close from time to time). But there are vastly more of us now and we are interconnected in new ways that could (and often do) lead to greater levels of relationship and cooperation. But the same larger numbers and greater interconnectedness highlights and even concentrates our differences in new ways, too—creating more obvious divisions and greater, more intense competition and hostility.

We can’t deny right now that we are a “sick” society. The sickness is in our faces every day, so much so that it can be difficult to focus on the ordinary requirements of our personal lives, other than defensively—against “others” who would either force us to accept differences that scare us, or take away from us what we so obviously need.

So what do we do about it? The good news is that we are already past the initial “shock” stage of the diagnosis, and our immune system is beginning to function. We have seen its initial stirrings in the protests—the ones that have shown the massive level of resistance needed to combat intense danger to the system, without violence, protests that show an understanding that we are more than individual cells fighting each other. We are all part of a body that requires cooperation and interdependence. There is a greater value at stake than just “us” and “them.” We are a living, breathing system of individuals that make up the singular human species on a planet of interconnected living systems. 

We have seen humanity’s immune system responding, among people who say that we need to listen to each other across our differences, to at least try to find common threads that can benefit more than just one kind of cell, one organ, one structure.

To make this metaphor work as well as I would like it to, I have to go beyond the most common current medical approaches to cancer (radiation and chemotherapy), and into broader ways of restoring health to the body as a whole. Let us imagine using ordinary medical approaches to remove the most immediate danger from the proliferating cells [resistance], but also focusing on a deeper awareness that the body has its own innate intelligence that tends toward wholeness. That intelligence is supported by the incredible diversity of the cells of the body. We need to stop our age-old efforts to make people fit into some box with others “just like them,” and instead celebrate the gifts our differences have given us.

Yes, we have an instinct to cluster and protect—but we also have an instinct to reach out to others, even different others. In times of massive tragedy, people come out to help, and when they do there are always stories that show what appear to be miraculous synchronicities that suggest an unseen order evolving out of chaos. It’s a matter of changing focus.

I suggested in my last blog post that parents find local and immediate ways to involve their children in volunteer efforts to provide help for others–not just others like themselves, but any others whose suffering they may be able to alleviate in some way. We can also stand up and say we will not acquiesce to a system based on the cancer cell’s strategy of putting self ahead of the whole, because that is ultimately a death blow to the whole.

And here’s the hard part—we need to avoid the hatred, hostility, aggression, plus the utter and sole self-interest that is the tactic of the cancer we are addressing. Every individual person who can come to see the self not as the center of the universe, but as a cell in the body of humanity, contributes to the health of that body.

It’s possible to use this cultural shock to re-examine our own paths and so contribute to the shift in direction that can come from it. My cancer led me to a wholly different way of being in the world, and so was a blessing in a (very convincing) disguise. May this time in our history be the same.

Uniqueness

19 May patel-irons

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.

Out of Sync

21 Mar

Announcement, announcement!OOS (Imagine a flourish of trumpets!)

On March 3, 2016, my new book, Out of Sync, Essays on Giftedness came out from Royal Fireworks Press, the publisher that brought the Columbus Group’s book Off the Charts to the world. Here is the link where you can check it out (and also buy it):  http://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness

This book is both new and old, because it’s a collection of my writings that have been published over more than three decades. Many, though not all of these pieces have been available for a number of years on my website, www.stephanietolan.com . Consequently, some of you will have read some of them already. That’s the “old” part. The new part consists of an introduction to each piece that provides a personal and cultural context.

My journey as a parent led from my husband’s and my concerns about our son’s schooling to concerns about American education, the definition and meaning of giftedness itself, the complexities of human intelligence and the reaches of the human mind, as well as how the differences we call giftedness affect one’s whole life trajectory. These are some of the subjects I’ve written about over thirty-plus years as my life and focus changed, in essays that are included in this book.

Unusually bright children are “out of sync” developmentally from birth, and will remain out of sync in one way or another throughout their lives, but they will only be children for a short time (one that can seem long in the midst of it, but like the blink of an eye at its conclusion). So in this eye blink from my perspective (1982 to the present) many parents who found my work helpful when coping with giftedness in their children (and themselves) have taken a journey from worrying about play dates for their kids to helping them choose graduate schools, or plan weddings. And yes, some are now becoming grandparents to a whole new generation of out of sync kids.

Sadly, the “old” stuff isn’t out of date, as I so wish it were. The same issues keep coming up. I see daily on social media questions from parents just beginning this journey that are exactly the same as the ones I faced and then worked (and wrote) to help answer. Last spring at a state gifted conference, I asked the audience of teachers and parents how many of them had read “Is It a Cheetah?”—my single most well-known piece, and the one I’ve been told has had the most success convincing educators that there really is a need to provide different nourishment for the different beings in their care. Only a few hands in that audience were raised, and it occurred to me that a new generation of parents and teachers is embarking on this journey who haven’t found the “old stuff” that can continue to provide a helpful guide to the obstacles out there, and some useful answers to the same old questions.

So that’s why this book—now one can get the pieces that readers have told me were the most helpful to them in one slim volume. (And BTW, the feet in those out of sync socks on the cover are my own!) Yes, I’m still out of sync, too.

Repeat:  http://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness

 

Special?

30 Nov

Not long ago when I was talking about my work about highly gifted kids with a healer I was seeing, she asked whether I thought highly gifted kids were special. “Well,” I said, “I prefer to think of them as different.  The word special seems to suggest better than others, and I don’t mean that.  They’re just different.”

She nodded.  “Yes, but we’re really all different, aren’t we?  I can’t think of any two people who aren’t.  Even identical twins aren’t actually the same.”

“I didn’t mean that kind of different,” I corrected myself.  “Of course there aren’t any people anywhere who are exactly the same.  I meant more like ‘outside the norms.’”

She nodded again, gravely.  “What sort of norms?”

I took refuge in an analogy.  “Think of height.  There’s a great height variation among same age children.  But there’s a ‘normal’ range that the majority of kids fit into, and then there are some that are much shorter and some who are much taller.  Highly gifted kids are like the taller kids.  All children have height, but not all children are tall.”

“But instead of height, you’re talking about intelligence, yes?”

“Right.  There’s a range of intelligence into which most people fall, and then there are some who are outside that range.  The greatest clustering is in the middle of the continuum, with smaller numbers of individuals on either side.” 

“So the ones on either side are special and the ones in the middle are—what?—regular?

“Well, the ones on either side have special needs that are different from the needs of the ones in the middle, but all kids have the same value.”

“So all kids are special—or else no kids are.”

“Wait,” I said.  “If all are special then of course no one is.”  I had a strange sense of being caught in a language trap.  “But if gifted kids are going to get an education that fits their need for challenging learning in a system based on norms, they have to have something the others don’t need.  In that sense they’re special.”

This healer knows what my spiritual beliefs are—we share most of them, including that we are all aspects of the divine.  She looked me steadily in the eye.  “So they are something others are not?” she asked.  “If all people are Spirit, do gifted kids somehow have more of Spirit, or a different Spirit?  If there is just One Spirit, how could that be?”

We went on to talk of other things, and then she worked with me on the PTSD left behind after the deaths in my family in 2013, and I headed home.  We’d made excellent progress with the PTSD.  But I was still genuinely unsettled about that conversation. 

My connection with the highly gifted began with my own experience of childhood, with my husband’s and then our offspring’s experiences, and then with families and teachers of such kids all over the country.  I have seen their struggles to get a challenging education and to find friends who understand them, their sense of “not fitting” in the world.  I have related powerfully to their trials and challenges.  How could I not?

But she had challenged me to notice for the first time the “us/them” dichotomy I had created in my own mind in spite of my deep belief that we humans are all one family, all expressions of the divine, all coping with the challenges of life. And—all supported through those challenges by that all-encompassing Spirit.  I have an image I’ve used in some of my talks of “Indra’s net,” the Buddhist symbol used to describe the non-dual transcendent basis of all existence, or its holographic equivalent. 

The human tendency to identify an “us” to feel comfortable and safe with, and a “them” to defend against, has been obvious to me among races, among political parties, among countries, ethnic groups, religions, and people with different sexual orientations.  I have felt that it was one of humanity’s most dangerous and self-destructive tendencies, leading us to generalize about groups defined as other.  But never before had my focus on highly gifted kids who so seldom get their educational needs met seemed to be in any way part of that tendency. My reaction to her questions showed me that it was.

Please understand me here.  This confrontation with the disparity between my deepest beliefs and my feelings about this population I care about doesn’t change my awareness of their needs or my wish to help them get those needs met.  It has only shifted something inside. 

It has given me a new understanding of those people who have ranged their arguments so intensely against the gifted, seeming to believe that if my us gets the world’s focus and support it will somehow leave their us out.  We all of us have problems, have needs that don’t get addressed, have trials and tribulations and pains that we cope with as best we can.  The world we see around us often feels and is said to be limited, a place where there is never enough for all of us

In that world, the truth is that we who have been given the blessing of fine minds need to remember that humans are more alike than different.  Many of our kids are clear about wanting to work for all. We don’t need more struggles between us and them, no matter how subtly (or internally) they occur. 

None of this changes the fact that there are infinite numbers of differences among the beings of our planet—cheetahs and whales, butterflies and frogs, snails and humans and bluebirds and gnats—life is diverse.  And life forms have diverse needs.  Naturally we will go on working to meet the needs of our own particular bits of the web of life, but it is essential to remember that we’re in this together–that life itself is one.  And it is life that is special.web

 “The flowers and the candles are for protection.”

18 Nov

flowers-candlesI myself was protected last weekend by being out of touch with television and the social media at the NAGC convention in Phoenix.  I was lucky enough to see not a single image from Paris until I got home on Sunday night, by which time memorials had sprung up at every site of the violence.

The title of this post will be readily recognized as a quotation from a video interview that went viral—with more than 14 million views on social media. In case you haven’t seen it, a father and his very young son were being interviewed in Paris at one of the sites where those lost in a bombing on Friday were being memorialized with banks of flowers and hundreds of candles.  The boy was very much afraid of the “mean people with guns.”

“We have flowers,” his father told him. The boy began to protest about the effects of mere flowers, but the father assured him that they were protection. Flowers and candles. The boy looked for a time at the banks of flowers and candles, and gradually his face relaxed. “For protection,” he repeated. When the interviewer asked if that idea made him feel better, he nodded. “I feel better,” he said.

In a powerful way, that father was right. The purpose of the terrorists is to spread fear, and at first, for that child, as for so many others, they had succeeded in their mission. The little boy wanted to move to a new home, a place safe from mean people with guns. “Paris is our home,” his father told him, and said that there are mean people everywhere. But in telling him that the flowers were protection, he showed his son the absolute truth that there are many people—vastly more than the paltry number of terrorists on this planet—who care.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said that his mother told him when he was a child and upset (as so many sensitive kids are) about news from some disaster, that instead of paying attention to the disaster, he should “watch the people who come to help—there are always people who come to help.”

A great many of the children we work with and care about are deeply empathic, feeling the pain of others, and easily overwhelmed by news of man’s inhumanity to man, of images of what “mean people” do in the world. How do we help them (and ourselves) deal with the chaos we see around us? Far more dangerous to a child than the possibility of a terrorist attack is an ingrained fear of other humans and a world of random violence. How do we protect them from the terror that is being purposely unleashed in our world today by people who themselves are terrorized by what they perceive to be massive world powers ranged against them?

By seeing, really seeing, under, over, past and around the images of death and destruction that the media insist on pouring into the atmosphere of this interconnected world.  By focusing on the vast majority—on the helpers, on those who bring candles and flowers.  We can think of every candle as “the light of truth” and every flower as a symbol not just of love and caring, but of the beauty of life itself.

When fear is being ratcheted up around the world not just by the terrorists and their guns and bombs, but by the news media that continually push those images on us, warning us that this sort of horror could happen anywhere at any time we can focus differently, and use our very good minds to support us. The numbers are on our side!

There’s an Allstate ad that says, “Man-eating sharks live in every ocean, but we still swim. Lightning strikes somewhere in the world, but we still play in the rain. So many things can happen. However, bad things in life can’t stop us from making our lives good. People live for good…”

While we tend to think of insurance companies intentionally frightening us to get us to buy their product, consider for a moment the principle on which that industry was created in the first place—that there is more “daily life” than catastrophe.

At this time in the history of the world our countries still respond to guns with guns, to bombs with bombs, to killing with killing.  But that father, pointing his son’s attention toward the flowers and candles, was giving him more protection than any gun or bomb ever could, by showing him that there are more people who care than who kill.  More people who help than harm.  He is giving his son faith in the deep, natural tendency of humans to help each other, and softening his fear.  It is fear the terrorists want, fear that becomes a deadly viral infection if we can’t look away from the killing and focus on the caring.

When parents ask me how to protect their super sensitive children in a chaotic world, I tell them to focus their own and their children’s attention on what there is to be grateful for, to notice every sign of life, of love, of caring. The more we look for it, the more we see. We need to know that what we pay attention to expands in our world. Yesterday in an article written long before these most recent attacks, I encountered a quotation attributed to Plato:  “Even the God of War is no match for love.”

Notice the flowers and the candles.

Stepping into a New World

14 Oct

Those (possibly very few reading here) who know tarot will recognize the “Zero” card in traditional decks as The Fool.  The image for this card usually includes someone about to step off the cliff of the known world into empty air—carrying or wearing a pack.  He is shown as care free and smiling.  We consider it inherently foolish to step off solid high ground, oblivious to the fall that clearly seems so certain.  But there may be something other than foolishness involved.  There is an aphorism that says, “when you must move forward beyond the edge of the cliff one of two things will happen—firm support will appear under your feet, or you will sprout wings and fly. 

Stepping off the very edge of the known world takes radical trust.  Not just trust, but the ability to trust in trust itself.  When the solid ground you’ve been standing on begins to shake and crumble beneath your feet, it may be wise rather than foolish to grab a few tools and step off.

I think about this new world thing today because I just returned from the OAGC fall conference in Ohio where I gave a keynote on Monday about the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was contributed to the field by the Columbus Group (yes, in Columbus on Columbus Day!)  At that conference there were inevitably many people acutely aware of tremors in the ground beneath their feet. 

In my small sessions for teachers questions were raised about how those dedicated to “doing no harm” to their gifted asynchronous students (or any others in their classes, for that matter) can be effective in a system that allows little breathing room and punishes teachers if their students do poorly on the tests that have come to rule the academic calendar.  We spoke of good, even great, teachers leaving the field because of massive frustration.  “It should not be this way,” we agreed.  I reminded them that some states are beginning to change draconian testing policies and suggested that when things get bad enough, even massive systems have to change, a bit at a time.  Finally, I found myself telling them to do whatever they can manage, and keep up their own spirits and their willingness to stick with it by finding at least one thing to be grateful for in every school day.  Then I apologized for having only the tool to give them that Bernie Siegel offers to cancer patients facing uncertain outcomes.  Has teaching come to this?  But I don’t apologize for the tool, because it is a very powerful one.

New forms arise out of chaos, but it takes courage to hold on through the chaos.  What we pay attention to expands in our experience, so it is important to focus on what works, no matter what else is going on around that. 

For myself, what I noticed to be grateful for in the very large gathering at OAGC (as well as back in March at the NJ state conference) was the strongest sense of a shift in consciousness I have ever felt in such gatherings in this country.  There is a growing awareness that our old way of thinking about “mind” as referring solely to rational thought within a rational/material world, is insufficient.  No matter how good it is, the rational mind cannot predict what the world our children will face as adults will look like, what they will need to know, or what skills they will need to have to find a place in that world.  As the pace of change continues to accelerate, educational patterns based on ideas about the human mind from decades, even centuries ago, will fail.

I put up a slide asking the conference attendees to consider their own definition or “sense” of what mind is, using at first these three images:

braincogswispy

The first represents, of course, the traditional scientific belief that mind originates and resides in the physical brain, the second symbolizes the mechanistic cogwheels of intellectual/rational/logical  thought, and the third a kind of nebulous, wispy not quite physical “something,” hard to pin down or “understand.”

Then I added a fourth image from painter Alex Gray:

        energy body

This one acknowledges an energy basis of both mind and body.

The feel of a very big room full of educators, when offered these images, is more open these days.  There seems to be a growing willingness to consider new ideas about what mind, what consciousness, may be. 

This is deeply heartening to me, because the ground we’ve been standing on all these centuries (while we have been developing, using and relying on our quite splendid rational minds to understand and analyze and tame the material world) is demonstrably crumbling beneath our feet.  Materialism, with its emphasis on separation, on particles rather than waves, leaves out something absolutely essential—what might be called the “heart” of humanity.

Here is a slide I have used in several talks to try to help broaden the concept of what mind consists of:

 Aspects of Mind/Consciousness

Awareness                           Perception                     Emotion/Feeling

Intellect                                Imagination                    Memory

Will                                       Intuition                          Compassion                

Only a few of these aspects are addressed in most school curricula.  We need to consider the world our children might help create if we began to recognize and value more of what can be called the non-rational aspects of our consciousness.  The rational mind, focusing on analyzing, separating, labeling, categorizing and creating hierarchies, has brought us to where we are today, disconnected from each other and from the nature that supports us.  We see the effects of this disconnection all around us and in every evening news broadcast.

The Columbus Group focuses not solely on intellect and achievement, but on the “whole child” in the education and raising of gifted kids.  It is essential that we also begin to recognize “whole mind,” the “whole being” as we look to the human future.  According to Jack Kornfield Sanskrit has only a single word for “mind” and “heart.”  Imagine the difference it would make if we could heal the separation we now see between these two aspects of ourselves!  It shouldn’t be such a huge stretch now that the field of neurocardiology is showing that the heart both receives and processes information. 

The members of the Columbus Group who went to New Zealand in April for our Symposium on Asynchronous Development all felt something personally transforming happened there.  That symposium began with an indigenous ceremony specifically recognizing the connectedness of all peoples, all beings, all aspects of our universe.  Such a different way of beginning an educational gathering surely had a part to play in this noticeable sense of transformation. 

For me this week it was a lovely synchronicity that October 12th is not only Columbus Day, but is called Indigenous Peoples Day in some places.  The old world (that had long been inhabited when Columbus set sail to “discover” it) possessed valuable—non-rational—tools of consciousness most of Europe had forgotten, tools that are likely to be useful or even necessary for taking our own next step as the ground continues to shake beneath us all. 

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?