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Knowledge, Belief and Experience

16 Jul
creativity

An “image” for consciousness?

On April 13th 2018 I wrote a post here titled “Deep and Deeper,” after speaking at the annual Seminar for IEA’s Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship students. The theme of that year’s seminar was Intersections. In that post I wrote: “…the new depths that interest me may not appeal to everyone. The title of my CDB workshop [ “From Indra’s Net to the Internet: Intersections, Reality and Consciousness.”] refers to both the mystical image of Indra’s net and the material world reality of the internet, two very different ways of perceiving intersections, the connectedness of all things. What I will be doing here in future is exploring both kinds of “deep.”

That’s what I’m doing again today. During the first week of July I had the honor and privilege of giving several presentations at PGR, the multi-day Colorado retreat for families of profoundly gifted kids. It was held at Glen Eyrie Castle, a conference center adjacent to Garden of the Gods, National Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs.

My two main presentations at PGR this month were focused on “both kinds of deep.” The first, Intelligence: Intellect and Intuition dealt with intellect as the fairly standard definition of intelligence and went deeper into the mostly (or at least often) overlooked but vastly important intuitive aspect. The other, Science and Consciousness, focused on two subjects that have long both interested and frustrated me. The frustration comes from the difficulty many scientists have finding a way to account for the relationship between these two. Science (materialist science) as a discipline is a creation of the human mind, yet consciousness—or mind itself—remains one of its greatest puzzles—the “hard problem” as it is often called. It is a hard problem because mind is manifestly immaterial. And that leaves materialist scientists with the curiously unsatisfying explanation that mind is a more or less “accidental” byproduct of the chemical and electrical functions of the brain. (But mind—of course—is what got me into the whole realm of the highly gifted in the first place!)

It is clear that mind and brain are intimately connected. Obviously, when the brain is damaged or malfunctions, or hasn’t fully formed during development, or is altered by drugs or chemicals, the individual’s mind does not function normally. But to assume that because of the need for a working brain to allow an individual to exhibit normal mental processing means that the brain is somehow manufacturing that mind is a bit like assuming that a working physical computer manufactures the messages in your email account or on your social networking sites. True that the brain is a living system while a computer is a mechanical/electronic one, but one still needs a way to account for the origins of the information that living system processes.

Actually, if one looks for scientific evidence that the brain does not create consciousness (awareness, thoughts, ideas, dreams, fantasies) it isn’t impossible to find. One does, of course, have to actually go looking for it. As Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon whose brain was devastated by a raging infection that put him in a deep coma (from which no medical experts expected him to awake at all, let alone without severe neurological impairment), writes, he had dismissed the idea that mind could exist without a functioning brain because—without investigating—he had, as a medical doctor, “known” that it couldn’t be true. The idea that his own consciousness could experience and then later remember those experiences he had while the machines in his hospital room were showing his neocortex essentially nonfunctional–“offline”–went against all his medical training, training that he would have called “truth” rather than “belief.” His experience, however, annihilated his previous belief system. Once he began to research new science he had never known existed, he discovered that his previous certainties about the relationship between mind and brain were part of a scientific belief system so pervasive that relatively few doctors question it.

Perhaps because I’m a writer highly dependent on imagination (an aspect of mind that’s also difficult to define scientifically), I know that it’s possible to create with words entire worlds and characters that a reader can “feel” as she reads to be somehow real, though made entirely of thought that can be shared by many other minds. So I have an overwhelming respect for human consciousness that includes both thought and imagination. And in a way, the fact that a person’s belief system can be so strong that it can dismiss any amount of external or written evidence that contradicts it, gives us a clue to the power of mind not just to gain new information, but also to reject it utterly. We writers have to pay attention to the need for our readers to sometimes “suspend disbelief” in order to stay with our story. And that can be tricky sometimes. “Seeing is believing” is a common saying. “Believing is seeing” is probably more accurate.

One doesn’t have to look far to find advocates of materialist science’s worldview who reject Dr. Alexander’s new view created by his own experience. But that experience has changed not only his way of life, but his whole definition of reality. Since his book was published many people have shared with him the way their own life experiences have shattered their old beliefs but have opened their own conscious awareness to more possibilities than they could ever have imagined, let alone believed. The world turns out to be full of people whose experiences, though unique to them, offer corroboration of his own.

Several PG teens who attended my talk about consciousness were, let’s say, “highly resistant” to its content. For a time I entertained their questions and objections to what I was presenting, but I had considerable information about the growing “science of consciousness,” that I had come to share with the people who had come to my session at least willing to consider it. I pointed out that I didn’t expect everyone to believe everything I was saying—my own ideas about these complex and challenging issues are based not only on my considerable readings in the field of consciousness, but also on my own lived experience.

After a while I had to give the kids the choice to stay in the session and listen, or to leave. Some left, some stayed. I don’t write about it here to criticize their behavior. They were super bright teens with their own strong belief in the mainstream, materialist science they had explored and learned about. And I was, after all, challenging some of the basic tenets of that science. It’s possible that one day one of them could bring new ideas, information or “interpretations” into science as it moves ever forward.

It has been said that science progresses “one death at a time.” People whose lives, careers and reputations have been built on ideas, explanations, “beliefs” that are being challenged by new information, may be utterly unable to relinquish their cherished assumptions. I talked a bit about Hugh Everett, whose “Many Worlds” interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics was originally almost universally rejected, and whose career in physics was basically halted by the scientists who couldn’t let go of their own beliefs. I pointed out that recently an astrophysicist on my local NPR station was discussing the difference between the “Copenhagen Interpretation” of quantum physics championed by Einstein, and Everett’s idea that every time one of two opposite outcomes might occur that both do and the worlds split. The shocked interviewer, clearly sure this was a totally crazy idea, asked how many “actual physicists” accept it. The answer given was that, in spite of overwhelming early dismissal, probably about fifty percent of physicists today agree with it. “And in some circles it would be 100%,” he added.

And here’s a synchronicity. A friend shared this quote with me today, just as I was about to write this post: “The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”  — Peter Diamondis

Why do I want to write about this here on The Deep End? Because this blog is all about extreme intelligence in an ever-changing world. No matter how brilliant any individual is, even Einstein, who refused to believe in “spooky action at a distance” explained that it is curiosity and mystery that drive scientists to do their work. They wonder. They hypothesize. And sometimes they discover something that challenges even beliefs that have previously been accepted as truths. Whether we consider ourselves scientists or not, as we live our lives, our experiences may well take us into “other worlds” that we may have thought impossible based on what we were taught or learned to believe. And no, I can’t buy the idea that mind, consciousness, is nothing more than  a byproduct of our physical brains. It is essentially mystery and is likely to remain intriguingly worth exploring.

My own imaginings and wonderings about what’s possible, and the answers I encounter as my life experiences change, have left more than sixty years of beliefs behind. I hope that none of the new ones I’ve developed (most immediately the concept that consciousness is the foundation of the universe itself) ever become so rock solid that they can’t change when my own life changes around them, or new and unexplored worlds open up. I hope for any readers here the same thing.

Meantime, yes–I have experienced what neurobotany suggests, that trees can communicate not only with other trees, but with humans. For indigenous peoples this is not a “new” idea, but a very old one.

Busting the Myth That Matters Most

19 May

                          Doomed?

 

The theme of the New Zealand Blog tour is “Mythbusting.”

Humans are the storytelling species, not just telling stories, but often, then, living by them. Some of these “stories to live by” become enshrined in a culture as Myths, defined as “accounts of gods or superhuman beings involved in extraordinary events or circumstances in a time existing apart from ordinary human experience.” Those myths can be of real value. But when we live by the other kind, defined as “widely held, but false beliefs or ideas,” they can do great damage to ourselves and others.

For nearly 100 years those of us interested in giftedness, and especially education of gifted children, have been doing our best to counter—bust—the sorts of harmful myths that surround giftedness. They are legion: “Early ripe, early rot.” “All children are gifted.” “Gifted children are so smart they don’t need help.” “Gifted kids may start out ahead, but others eventually catch up.” “Giftedness is measured solely by achievement.” “Giftedness is created by schools.” “Giftedness is not innate—it is nothing more than a matter of grit and determination.”

I’ll stop there, though anyone reading this can probably supply plenty of others. Now here’s the thing:  there’s a massive supply of evidence disproving them! We’ve been collecting and pointing to that evidence decade after decade.

And yet the myths persist. Not only do they persist, but education (certainly in the USA and perhaps elsewhere as well) is quite literally going the other direction, using many of those myths to justify backing away from actually meeting the needs of gifted children. For that matter, even a few of those who are considered gifted “experts” have created some myths that serve their own purposes instead of the children.

So I want to offer an idea that is bound to be controversial. The basic principle I wish to point out is that literally the only myth we can successfully “bust” is one that we harbor in ourselves. You may protest that we (especially we who are parents and/or gifted ourselves) have truths, not myths. But our truths, too, are stories, and some of them may not be helping our kids or even ourselves.

I would like to suggest that the single most harmful story we may tell is that for a gifted child to “succeed” in life, to live up to, develop, and fulfill his or her potential, the environment around that child has to change. In that story the world’s myths must be busted and the “right” sort of education must be provided to meet the child’s particular needs. Because, we say, those needs are real, and if not met will result not only in pain and misery, but the loss to the world of that child’s unique gifts.

That, in fact, was the myth that drove my own efforts to give my son the very most appropriate education I could find or force or pay for. (That last was tricky, given my husband’s and my professions in the arts.) There were both successes and setbacks along the way, but they didn’t change my quest, until my son took over the direction of his life, and set off on his own.

Please understand that I am not–repeat not–advocating that we who live or work with the gifted do nothing! Those of us who care and hope for change, should and will continue to work for better educational options.

What I am advocating is changing perspective on the story we tell–the “myth” we tell ourselves and directly or indirectly, our gifted kids. It’s a small change but has a huge meaning and impact. Difficult circumstances, inappropriate educational opportunities, unfairness and prejudice are not insurmountable obstacles. In fact, sometimes they can be exactly the opposite, spurring increased effort and unstoppable determination. The gifted human mind is a powerful force.

Throughout history many gifted humans have overcome almost unbelievable challenges and have found ways to use their innate gifts and talents no matter their surroundings and the setbacks or enemies they have encountered. Sometimes they’ve brought the world great and recognizable achievements. In the slide show accompanying one of my talks I have an image of Nelson Mandela looking out the barred window of his prison cell. I captioned it “How do you cage a mind?”

Many of those who, like Mandela, have managed to overcome the forces ranged against them, have “merely” been able to live fulfilled lives, lives that have benefited themselves and those nearest to them. The whole world might not know their names, but how they have lived has made a difference. Some have become genuine heroes, however unsung.

The change of perspective I’m suggesting requires us to examine our own stories to erase any aura of victimhood in them. We need to find for ourselves a way to trust that the story of an unusual, powerful, extraordinary mind is, in fact, the story of a powerful gift, no matter what the rest of the world has to say about it. It is not a gift to flaunt, but to be truly, deeply grateful for. That is a true story we can tell both ourselves and the kids we live and work with—such a mind has the capacity to rise to whatever challenge it faces. And yes, it is also true that it’s highly likely to require some serious grit and determination!

 

On Authenticity

7 Aug

A while back I titled a blog post Deep and Deeper and my last post, Who Are We?, led me to return to the intention that motivated that earlier post. Death (along with individual identity) is certainly a subject that can be described as deep or yet deeper. So deep is the subject of death, in fact, that many, perhaps most people in our culture, do their best to avoid talking or even thinking about it altogether.

Back in 1992, when the five women who began the Columbus Group, gathered at my house in Columbus, Ohio to try to come up with a different definition of giftedness than was currently in vogue (a definition centered on academic achievement) one of the very first examples of the qualitative difference between highly or profoundly gifted children and other children of their age [the difference we would soon name Asynchronous Development], was the case of Jennie–and death. Four year old Jennie was traumatized when her grandfather died. Extrapolating a principle from one subject or event to another, as profoundly gifted children tend to begin doing even as toddlers, she began to worry that her mother or father might die as well. Her mother, doing her best to comfort this very little girl, told her that she didn’t need to worry. They were not going to die, she assured Jennie. “Grandpa died because he was old. I’m not old. Your father isn’t old.” Jennie was not in the least comforted by this story. She watched the news on television, after all. “Other people die,” she said. “Even children die!”

The problems very young children have with asynchronous development is that their minds outdistance their emotional maturity, so the simple cushioning stories that adults often give young children to soften the impact of painful truths don’t work well with them. Not only do such stories not provide the cushioning the children need, the stories’ simple platitudes, so obviously untrue, are likely to be taken as adult dishonesty. Jennie had not long been identified as profoundly gifted, and her mother didn’t yet realize that she needed to deal with such issues as the inevitability of death on a much more adult level with Jennie than she had expected.

The deep and deeper human issues need to be addressed with super bright kids both more honestly and earlier than we might be prepared for. Examples of these issues—our inhumanity to each other and other life forms, our predilection for violence and warfare, our failure to protect the planet that is our only home—the list is long and more and more “in our faces” these days. Which means, of course, that we have to face these issues ourselves on a deep enough level to address them honestly from our own perspective when we talk to these children (or even when they’re within earshot). As Stephen Sondheim reminds us in a song from “Into the Woods,” Children will listen!

Many of us got our first stories about such issues from the religions of our parents or grandparents or our ethnic culture. Or from other kids, or science text books or the “mass media.” Often, as we grow up, whatever we were told from whatever source, begins to feel wrong or untrue. For myself, I long ago rejected the version of reality that was provided by my religious education—some of what was labeled wrong no longer seemed wrong to me, and what was right sometimes had begun to seem distinctly the opposite. Even worse than the loss of religious certainties in some ways, was the realization that what I had learned in school as undisputed fact (history, for instance, or even science) had too often been either purposely distorted to support a kind of cultural propaganda, or just an error that had continued to be taught even after it had been superseded or at least challenged by new information and new theories.

For myself, various “truths” began to disintegrate when my own personal experiences contradicted them. As a fiction writer, I had always intended to write “realistic fiction,” until the line between imagination and reality or between what could be and what really was could no longer be firmly drawn. There were things I experienced that I didn’t talk about in public because, except when I was talking to children, my audiences didn’t seem to me ready to hear what I would have said.

But when I was speaking to an adult audience dealing with kids at the far right tail of the curve, where unusual experiences become more common, I began to stretch the boundaries a bit. Back in the days of the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted, I explained in a keynote, for instance, that becoming a Reiki practitioner—I wasn’t yet a Reiki Master, able to teach the method to others—had ended my problem with seasonal allergies. (Reiki is an energy healing modality that originated in Japan.) All these years later, I still don’t have those allergies! One year someone wrote on a conference evaluation form that I was “too far out.” (The next year I titled my keynote “On Being Too Far Out.”)

I had, of course, found those “far out” things well-supported in books written by leading edge scientists, some of whom I knew personally, though the ideas hadn’t yet shown up in school text books. What had once been labeled “New Age” and outside the realm of rationality, began to fill the shelves at book stores even before the internet had made them readily accessible to anyone with an interest. I still find it odd that after nearly 100 years of challenging the certainties of material science and Newtonian physics, quantum physics is apparently still not a standard offering in most high schools.

Between 1992 and today, my thinking about “deep and deeper” has moved from the need to be willing to honestly talk to super gifted kids about the difficult emotional issues of human life, to being willing to honestly address questions of consciousness, reality, values and spirituality (which may or may not include religion) with them. The most important word in that sentence is “honestly.” About these issues there are seldom certainties for us other than personal experience. Being honest with them, of course, means admitting that there is “mystery” involved—as with the orbs (mysterious and sometimes colored “balls of light” often with internal mandala patterns) that show up all over the place in photographs taken both indoors and outside at Camp Yunasa—so in talking to campers about them I make no effort to explain the phenomenon. This tends to drive the campers a little crazy. All I can say is that none of the “standard explanations” involving dust particles, moisture, or the closeness of lens to flash in digital cameras, explain them either. During my “orb slide show” last year kids got out their cameras and began taking photos and sure enough, a few orbs showed up at first, and the more photos they took the more orbs appeared. Photo above taken as two of Yunasa’s Fellows walk back to our bunks after Spirit Journey–August, 2017.

 

I don’t usually write—or talk—to persuade people any more (though I used to, for sure). I write to share my thoughts, and usually some of the reasons I think them—especially when they aren’t mainstream, or not mainstream in the gifted realm. Ernest Holmes, author of Science of Mind, said, “The child-like mind is more receptive to Truth than the over intellectual.” He suggests this, I think, because children tend to be more open to mystery than those of us proud of our very good intellects. We tend to have minds stuffed with facts we’ve learned and beliefs that we think of as true, but Ernest is after something larger (and deeper), something (Truth) that he dares to capitalize without defining. And since one of his principles was always to “stay open at the top,” I’m pretty sure he would have said that Truth for us changes as we and our perceptions change. And change we humans do, if we allow it.

When I started The Deep End Facebook page  back when I was new to social media, I hoped the page would encourage discussions of some of the nonrational capacities and experiences of the highly gifted that are quite common among this population (which those of us with long experience know, even though many parents are hesitant to talk about them, for fear of disbelief or ridicule). As soon as such discussions began on that page, however, some folks who limit their ideas about consciousness to the purely rational, and apparently about science to the purely material, launched attacks that closed those beginning discussions down. It can be psychologically dangerous to talk about nonrational experiences among hyper-rational gifted folk all too poised to attack. So okay, this is a blog instead, and I write it. I get to choose what I write about.

After I posted “Who Are We?” I heard from some folks that they appreciated my honesty. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in this “gifted biz” for a long time, or more likely it’s because I believe what Anita Moorjani (author of Dying to Be Me, a book about her amazing Near Death Experience) says about the need to be one’s essential self. It is that need that led me to share with Yunasa campers last year (my final year with the camp) the “evidence” I have that there is life after death. There, too, I didn’t ask them to share my interpretation of that evidence. They have to make up their own minds, as do we all. But unless we share what is deep and deeper in our own lives and experience, how will openings to new perceptions and awareness come about?

For me, it is easier to talk about death these days now that I am totally convinced by my own experiences and some astonishing evidence that it is illusion—transformation not ending. But I don’t try to convince people. I believe that honesty and authenticity have real and lasting value, no matter how others respond. (Also, I’m old enough not to care so much what people think of me as I used to.) But I must also add here that while taking the fear of death out of the picture is astonishingly liberating, it does not save us from the grief of such loss. Believe me, I know.

TolanMemorial 16

Tolan Memorial 2013

Who Are We?

2 Aug

Tomorrow is the one week anniversary of a sudden and unexpected death that has rocked the gifted community and has brought a deluge of memorial messages that the writers surely hope will assuage their own shock and grief, and comfort both Jim Webb’s family and all those who have benefited over the last 37 years from the work that he (and SENG) did to bring attention to the needs of gifted children and families. In addition, of course, there is the plethora of books that he published in the field, from the first days of Ohio Psychological Publishing (initial publisher—1982—of Guiding the Gifted Child) to the era of Great Potential Press.

As I have read those messages, I have been aware that the Jim Webb those writers describe is not the Jim Webb I met in 1981, nor the Jim Webb I knew during the approximately 20 years thereafter during which he and I and Elizabeth (Betty) Meckstroth discussed and sometimes attempted to write a second edition of Guiding. We never managed it because it turned out that she and I, by then both members of the Columbus Group, no longer were in agreement with what he wanted to say about giftedness. (When I was doing the writing part of Guiding, I found in his notes the statement that a gifted child was a child first and “gifted only secondarily.” so I called him up and explained that Betty and I did not agree with that statement. He acquiesced. The book’s theme became pretty much the opposite—giftedness, certainly extreme giftedness, is inborn.) Because our Guiding contract did not allow Jim to engage someone else to write the revision, the three of us finally gave up on revising it. After that his and my interactions dwindled to social events at various conferences, so I didn’t know him at all well in recent years.

But because I am among those in the gifted community who knew him “almost from the start,” I have been contacted to share for publication my thoughts about him and my feelings about his passing. I decided to write here instead. Of course, I was as shocked as anyone that he should leave the world so suddenly and so “young.” He was only 3 years older than I, so we are of the same “cohort” as it were. Too young, in other words! And I’m as aware as anyone of the enormous impact his work—his speaking and publishing, and the work of SENG—have had on the world’s understanding that the complex population of gifted kids, adults, elders and educators is of vital importance to humanity. I did post a couple of comments on the FB pages of others.

But the requests for comments, and the reading of what others have been posting in social media, got me to asking “who are we?”– we individual humans. The profile photo on my own personal Facebook page is not one anyone except my family would recognize as me—I was a blond, pigtailed child of eight at the time it was taken. Who I was then was an “annoying” kid (according to some of my teachers—and maybe my parents, and probably my older siblings). There was no such thing as a gifted, much less a highly gifted kid in my world at the time.

Back in the 70’s when Jane Piirto did her study of successful women writers, of which I was one by her study’s standards, as I was in the Directory of American Poets, and worked in the Poets in the Schools program, I actually claimed (because I believed) that I had “loved school.” I got good grades, after all. (psst: it’s called repression.)

It wasn’t until the conference in Nebraska to honor Leta Hollingworth (in 1989, seven years after the publication of Guiding!), when I heard Leta’s poem “The Lone Pine” in a documentary, that I confronted the very new truth that I had been a highly gifted child who loathed and despised school except for a very occasional teacher. (I think there were 5 or 6 between Kindergarten and college.) I could add that my teachers did not like me either, to put it sometimes mildly. I literally cried the whole second leg (Chicago to Albany) of my flight home from Nebraska and then wrote obsessively for six hours afterwards, uncovering a veritable dump truck load of painful memories. So it’s a tricky question.  Who was I before and after that conference?

I wrote a great deal about parenting gifted kids before I ever knew I had been one—though my husband’s extreme giftedness had been unmasked when our son was identified. My mother-in-law explained the shocking truth that the one year of elementary school he remembered—when he got to ride a trolley to a special school (a school he thought was for “difficult” kids) was actually a pilot program for the highly gifted. I remember all too well his horror that he hadn’t accomplished more as an adult—he was “only” a theatre director with a Ph.D. after all. Who was he before and after?

I interacted with Jim regularly for years. When SENG conferences began I spoke at them. But when a friend of mine who headed a national organization that had financially supported one of them took me to dinner at the conference and asked me about stories he had heard from other speakers about Jim lowering contracted speaker fees at the last minute with a threat to take them off the schedule if they didn’t sign the new contract, I told him that it hadn’t bothered me because I had just corrected the amount on the contract to the amount I’d been promised, initialed it, and signed. He asked me further questions, and I answered truthfully with whatever facts I knew. The organization never again supported SENG and I was never again asked to speak at Jim’s conferences.

I was born in 1942 and grew up in a world where most women stayed at home and few professions were open even to bright and accomplished women. And I spent some time (5 years) in higher education, where my male office mate, with precisely the same credentials as mine, made one fifth more than I in salary. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was “the way things were.” There was a huge power imbalance in our world, we knew it, and we pretty much put up with it. When Jim promoted Guiding as his book, Betty and I used to call each other “Et” and “Al,” which was the most common representation (when we got any) of our participation. Once I even saw myself listed as the author only of the “Open Letter” chapter, https://welcometothedeepend.com/an-open-letter-updated/ which I had copyrighted in my name so that I could use it elsewhere, as above and in Out of Sync https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness. But I long ago forgave him. The book gave me my work with the gifted, for which I am enduringly grateful.

In this era of “#Me, too” I’ve sometimes been bothered when men who have had long and successful careers, sometimes doing important work for the common good, can essentially lose everything when it is revealed that they previously used their power in ways that are now recognized as inappropriate, sometimes decades ago, at a time when the whole culture turned a blind eye to their behavior. Except for actual crimes (and even some crimes have statutes of limitation) I wonder, in spite of those who want to insist on truth, whether it is just or fair to judge a person for “who they were then,” when it is at least possible and maybe probable that they are not that person any more. I know, the culture needs to truly change, but still…

In the many comments I have read about Jim’s kindness, his caring, his deep friendships and unstinting emotional support, I recognize that these people, many of them friends and colleagues, knew a more recent and very different person than I ever did. I honor their experiences because it is very, very easy for me to remember myself treating other people when I was younger in a way that would pretty much horrify me now. I would not wish to be thought of as that person today! In a world where caring and kindness, inclusion, deep listening, and efforts to understand those who disagree with us or have less power than we do are getting vanishingly rare, and desperately needed, I remind myself that we never, genuinely never, fully know someone, perhaps even ourselves, the only one whose mind we inhabit. So today I mourn the Jim Webb those people are mourning.

And having survived some terrible losses myself, I send deep and heartfelt condolences to Janet and his family!

 

Celebrate Giftedness; Consider Success

18 May

New Zealand is choosing to celebrate giftedness in its annual Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, with the theme “Catalysts of Success.” So let me first celebrate celebration—remember this song? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwjfUFyY6M

Unusual intelligence can feel like more of a burden than a gift, but it’s all in how we choose to see it. We who are gifted and we who care for and work with gifted kids, have a very great deal to be grateful for and it is really important for our own well-being to remember that. The song in the above link says “celebrate good times,” and what many people don’t realize is how very important it is to first notice, and then celebrate the good times. If we focus always on what is not working and our ferocious (and admittedly sometimes unsuccessful) efforts to get those things “fixed,” we can get into the habit of seeing only negatives—only bad times—and ignoring or taking for granted the good ones. It is hugely important to recognize and remember that giftedness itself provides us with vast and out-of-the-ordinary internal resources. Celebration is a truly important positive attitude. And a positive attitude not only leads to success, but can become itself the very definition of success.

So that brings me to the theme:  “catalysts of success.” The first essential for me here is to define success. There are plenty of people who define it in terms of achievement, usually achievement in terms of money, power and fame. I would never suggest that money, power and fame are not worth having, but I do suggest that they are not the definition of success. When I began writing (and publishing) novels and they did not immediately shoot to the top of the best seller lists, did not get lucrative movie deals, in fact did not make me a living that could even measure up to the salary of a first year teacher almost anywhere in the states, it would never have occurred to me to consider the fact that I was able to write them (writing was, after all, what I had wanted to do since childhood) as success. More than that, publishers were willing to publish them, and children and young adults were reading them and writing letters to tell me so. However tricky it was to raise a family on the modest income provided by two adult human beings “doing art” in the U.S., my husband and I were both doing what we loved most to do. When I look back on those times, I wish I had understood then how important gratitude and celebration were. And how grateful we both should have been, no matter the difficulties, that we were “gifted” with the ability and the opportunity to do what we loved, what fed our souls.

Now for the definition of “catalyst”:  An agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. We all know that things are not ideal for gifted kids in the educational world no matter what country or continent we represent, so since change is inevitable, we can be certain that “significant change” in a positive direction is always to be desired. Whether you are one of the gifted population, a teacher, a parent, an administrator—any or all of the above—I could suggest a whole list of catalysts you can cultivate to help provoke and/or speed significant change. Effort, determination, purpose, intentions, goals, preparation, willingness, persistence. I am sure you can add a few more of your own. But for me (some of you may remember an article of mine called “In Praise of Pollyanna,” which can be found in my book “Out of Sync”: https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness ) Pollyanna’s focus on looking for things that made her glad is worth adopting. The single most important catalyst is gratitude. Well—that and celebration!

 

Deep and Deeper

13 Apr

“All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. This we know: Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

“When we try to pick out something by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”–John Muir

It has been an absurdly long time since I wrote something for this blog. But today it’s time. Last month I did a workshop for the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship program’s annual seminar, sponsored by IEA, the Institute for Educational Advancement. The theme of this year’s seminar was “Intersections” and my workshop was titled “From Indra’s Net to the Internet: Intersections, Reality and Consciousness.”

To prepare for the seminar it was suggested that the attendees watch this TED Talk about “multipotentialites”:

https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_callingIf you don’t have time to watch the talk (though I highly recommend it), let me explain that Wapnick uses the term multipotentialite to describe a person who can’t relate to the idea of finding “one true calling.” If they commit to a job or a subject matter, as soon as they have learned or mastered it they need to move on to something else; there are always lots of other paths (interests) pulling them to explore. Many of “our kids” will recognize themselves in this talk.

Watching it, I realized that I am an “elder multipotentialite.” My 6th grade teacher told my mother that I would never amount to anything because I was interested in “too many things.” Miss Shreve deeply believed in the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” She was not, you may be sure, one of my favorite teachers! I am lucky, though. I’ve managed to have the best of both worlds. I do have one true calling, but it is writing, a calling so broad and varied that there is no limit to my ability to follow it for a lifetime and yet avoid boredom.

Most of you who read this blog came to it because you share, for your own reasons, my personal passion for serving the needs of super bright kids and adults. This blog and much of the rest of my nonfiction, along with much of my public speaking, has been about extraordinary intelligence, and what I’ve written and talked about on this subject is best known in the gifted community.

But many of you also know some of my fiction for kids and young adults. Certainly Welcome to the Ark and Flight of the Raven, along with my much earlier novel A Time to Fly Free, are specifically related to highly gifted individuals, but I write other kinds of children’s books as well. And my plays, most of them written in collaboration with Katherine Paterson—author, among many other award-winning novels, of Bridge to Terabithia—are meant to appeal to a broad audience of kids.

Most recently my interests and my life experience (some of which I’ve written about here) have led (or pushed) me in a new direction, the first book from that path being my book Change Your Story, Change Your Life. Some of you may have found it through my websites http://www.stephanietolan.com or www.storyhealer.com.

I expect more nonfiction writing will come from the spiritual perspective that the losses in my life forced me to discover and that the current chaos in the world we all share continues to test and expand.

The theme and title of this blog refer to the metaphorical “deep end” environment that mermaids (unable to survive long on dry land) need to survive longterm. But since I created the blog, the term has taken on a new meaning for me—has become, if you will, even deeper. I will not lose interest in the subject that led me to begin it (how could one get bored in the realm of the gifted mind—as broad a territory as writing itself?) but the new depths that interest me may not appeal to everyone. The title of my CDB workshop refers to both the mystical image of Indra’s net and the material world reality of the internet, two very different ways of perceiving intersections, the connectedness of all things. What I will be doing here in future is exploring both kinds of “deep.”

And meanwhile I’ve begun the intense work of writing the third book of the “Ark Trilogy,” Within the Dark. Because, of course, fiction is a fundamental part of my “one true calling.”

 

The Value of Challenge

15 Jul

 

Almost all parents of highly to profoundly gifted children know quite well that one of the major difficulties in their children’s education is a lack of appropriate intellectual challenge. When Leta Hollingworth suggested in the first half of the last century that highly gifted children waste most of their time in school and profoundly gifted children waste almost all of it, she was making it clear that the primary challenge for these kids in most school situations was boredom. There was little or nothing for their active, questing minds to engage with, little challenge from which to grow and develop their knowledge base, or discover new ideas and to evaluate them, or to learn how to come up with and best express their own important thoughts and judgments. No challenge.

In a blog post entitled “The Right to Struggle,” The Gifted Development Center’s Dr. Linda Silverman poses the situation as a matter of civil rights. “How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts—when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist, Carol Morreale, said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn.” [italics mine]  http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/blogs/bobbie-and-lindas-blog/right-struggle

This lack of challenge or “struggle” is clearly shown in the answer a profoundly gifted teenage girl gave in 2012 when Patty Gatto-Walden and I asked Yunasa campers to respond to a speech made by the then President of NAGC, advocating a move away from the idea that “giftedness” is an innate difference.

“…I started ninth grade when I was twelve—and … there was another girl a couple months older than me who was also starting the ninth grade…the main difference between us is that she was working really, really hard to maintain good grades at the ninth grade level at age 12. She was having a real struggle, she was constantly having to do homework, she had to put a ton of effort in. Whereas, I was sitting in all my classes daydreaming because I still wasn’t being challenged—because the way traditional curriculum is taught doesn’t hold my attention, so I always thought there was an extreme difference between [us]. …seeing this girl’s experience compared to mine when we were the same age in the same grade, …I didn’t really understand much about giftedness, but even at that point I thought, ‘This doesn’t really seem like the same situation!’” (Gatto-Walden & Tolan, 2012 presentation at NAGC)

None of this will surprise parents of highly gifted children or the teachers who understand and work with them to provide either acceleration or intense levels of enrichment (or both) to give them worthwhile learning experiences in school. They need to encounter real challenge.

But today I want to take this idea of the value of challenge in a different, and maybe new-to-most readers, direction.

Bear with me. When I was a child we kids were sent out in good weather to “play outside” and told to be sure to come home by dinner time, or when the streetlights came on. My husband’s and my boys (the next generation kids) were also allowed to go out and play on their own. It was what kids did! They rode bikes or roller skated, played games, invented games, pogo-sticked, walked to parks, libraries, playgrounds. In my case the kids on my block explored the shores of Lake Michigan, across the street from my house. Kids without adults, just being kids.

But something changed in 1979 when our youngest had just turned seven. Six year old Etan Patz, walking the two blocks to his school bus stop in New York City by himself for the first time, disappeared. What followed across this country was the launching of the missing children movement, the practice of putting the faces of missing children on milk cartons, and the idea that all children must be taught about “stranger danger.” Even though we lived in a pleasant residential neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio I remember following the official advice to get our son “dog tags” to wear with his name, address and phone number. Of course, he knew that information himself and could perfectly well find his way home on his own, but news broadcasts reminded parents steadily that “something might happen” to children to keep them from being able to do that. That “something” that loomed over all of us was whatever had happened to Etan Patz. Eventually, of course, the world learned that he had been murdered by a mentally ill neighbor.

But something fundamental had changed in our culture. Over time parents came to think that whenever their children were outside their homes “unsupervised” by an adult they were actually in danger of being hurt or killed by a stranger. Though some (or many) parents knew how rare such events really were, they were still plagued by a fear that such an “almost-never-happens” catastrophe might happen to their child. And it would have been their fault…

Now, closing in on four decades later, parental fear has grown and spread from the possibility of kidnapping or murder to a huge variety of unpleasant experiences that children “need” to be protected from. The media (social and otherwise) bring us a steady diet of warnings, and examples of dangers children may face on a daily basis. And given that highly and profoundly gifted children are often unusually sensitive and different enough to be frequently bullied, they may seem to be especially vulnerable.

It is this constantly growing fear that has created the phenomenon known as the “helicopter parent.” The image this term conjures may seem extreme enough that most parents don’t see themselves this way, but it can be hard to avoid some of the over-protectiveness it suggests. That over-protectiveness has spread beyond individual parents to our society itself, so that neighbors and even strangers have been known to contact police to report children going to a park, a library, even sometimes on their way home by themselves, without an adult to watch over them. It is in response to this level of concern that the “free range children” movement was started to bring childhood at least a little closer to what it was when I was growing up. But the phenomenon of helicopter parenting does not appear to be greatly affected by this press for greater freedom. Usually starting when children are quite small, over-protection continues these days into high school and college.

Recently, my grandson (who starts high school this fall) was talking to my son about where he might like to go for college. Son told grandson that out of state tuition for his first choice university was wildly expensive. “That’s okay,” grandson said, “you and Mom can just rent an apartment there and I can take a gap year and live in the apartment so I can become a state resident.” There followed, of course, a brief and realistic financial discussion!

When I learned of this conversation, I pointed out that I’ve been hearing about helicopter parents who rent an apartment for themselves in the town or city where their child goes to school (in some cases may even buy a house!) so they can live close enough to help their son or daughter choose classes, to feed them, do their laundry, meet all their professors, and arrange regular conferences with any who fail to give the child acceptable grades, etc. My son just shook his head. “In this family we are all looking forward to the time this kid goes off on his own!”

So when I was recently talking to a young woman whose job it is to counsel students who are having difficulty adjusting to college (of which there are apparently an ever-increasing number), I asked if this issue of parents taking up residence in the same town was something this particular school had to deal with. “Not just in the same town! There are mothers who move in with their kids—sometimes even in the kid’s dorm room.” It was in that startling conversation that I first heard the new term, snow-plow parent. “These parents don’t just hover over their kids,” she said. “They go in front of them in everything they do to make sure the kid doesn’t encounter any obstacles of any kind. It’s practically an epidemic!”

These conversations got me to thinking about the whole issue of learning and challenge. For a number of years employers have been reporting that young men and women newly out of college (or even prestigious and challenging graduate programs) seem unable or unwilling to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves. When given a task typical of the job they’ve been hired for they need far more support in figuring out how to do it than earlier generations did. “They want and expect—in fact need—someone to lead them by the hand, tell them what to do and how to do it, and then keep an eye on them to be sure it gets done.” I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to highly or profoundly gifted kids, but given some of the top schools these young people graduated from, one wonders.

So I decided to write this blog in order to ask  parents the question “What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Years ago I gave a talk at NAGC called “The Problem of Pain,” which was later published in the CAG Newsletter in California and is included in my 2016 book Out of Sync. [https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness] The piece provides what I call a “Nifty Tool Kit” for helping one’s child cope with pain. It is difficult for any of us to watch our children suffer physical, emotional or psychological pain. We tend to want more than anything just to take it away. Fix it. Find a way to keep it from recurring. But no one gets through life without pain. Reaching adulthood without developing any strategies for coping with it is not a benefit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating pain. I’m not a believer in the adage “no pain no gain.” There are many ways to learn important life lessons from positive experiences. And by life challenges, I don’t mean only those that bring pain. It is a challenge to choose a major, a challenge to fulfill an obligation one may have undertaken without fully understanding the work involved, a challenge to walk away from a relationship that is forcing one to camouflage one’s real self, and a challenge to stand up for oneself when one has been judged unfairly. And it is, of course, a challenge to begin accepting responsibility for one’s actions and choices. Those are all part of learning to be a fully functioning adult. And here’s one that highly to profoundly gifted adolescents often struggle with—a challenge to discover not just what one can do, but what gives one joy in the doing.

Life—for everyone—includes difficult challenges like loss, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, disappointment, mistakes and bad choices. If their parents constantly rush in to “fix” any uncomfortable situation, or remove any and every obstacle children or adolescents might encounter, how do they develop the kinds of coping strategies that will be essential in the rest of their lives? We insist that children need to learn at or near the top of their cognitive capacity so they’ll have the intellectual tools they’ll need to reach their potential. It’s equally important to let them stretch themselves to contend with the difficulties they encounter in their personal lives.

Parenting is difficult and scary, and parenting out of sync kids is no walk in the park. We don’t have “owner’s manuals.” We do the best we can. I’m certainly not suggesting you abandon your child in the face of difficult life experiences! I’m suggesting only that you consider that question I asked earlier:

“What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”