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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?

Revisiting A Wrinkle in Time 50 Years On…

3 Dec

Wrinkle-bigger

November 29 was a big day for birthdays of writers of massively successful books for kids.  Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle were all born on that day. But as loved as all these authors are, it’s Madeleine’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, that I am moved to talk about today. It was published fifty years ago—something I find not only hard, but quite annoying to believe—and has sold over 10 million copies.  Having been rejected by publisher after publisher, many of whom believed its foundational concepts of theoretical physics “too hard” for kids, it won the Newbery Medal in 1963.  

(If by some chance you or the gifted kids in your life haven’t read it, I urge you to head for your book store or library or ebook and remedy that oversight as soon as you reasonably can.) 

When I told my friend and sometimes collaborator Katherine Paterson, another Newbery medalist, that I had just reread the book, having had to get it from the library because my own copy has disappeared, she sent me a copy of this year’s anniversary edition, for which she wrote the introduction.  A brand new copy (with all sorts of lovely extras) now sits on my desk, with newly written blurbs on its back cover, such as this from Scott Westerfeld: “…Hers were the first books I read that mixed math and magic, the quest and the quantum.” 

I had read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my son when he was six years old because he was in great need of meeting Charles Wallace Murry, the profoundly gifted, highly asysnchronous little boy who is the younger brother of Meg, the novel’s profoundly gifted protagonist.  My son needed to know that there were other kids who were as different as he was feeling in the first grade, and in pretty much the same way.  The profoundly gifted characters in this book—and the companion books that followed—Charles Wallace, Meg, and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, have given super bright children a sense of having peers and companions in the world for half a century. 

But it is not the giftedness of the young characters, or the anniversary year, or even the occasion of Madeleine’s birthday last week that motivates my writing about it here just now. It is the book’s plot. I reread it because I needed to be reminded of the particular evil the children struggle with once they tesseract to the planet Camazotz where they hope to rescue Mr. Murry, who has been imprisoned by IT, the planet’s all-powerful leader. The evil “shadow” that has fully engulfed Camazotz, and threatens other planets, including Earth, is uniformity.  IT is not so much a person as a singular consciousness that enforces absolute conformity of thought and action. The people of the planet, IT assures the children, are happy, content and safe because they are essentially identical.  There is no need for individual thought. 

Recently I posted “Are We Redefining the Wrong Word” in response to the conflict in the gifted field over what giftedness means and how the educational world should address it.  The effort to unite the field under the single banner of talent development has been presented as a more politically viable, more efficient, more fundable and less complicated method of holding a place for gifted children in the country’s educational system than continuing to contend with varied points of view and a multiplicity of approaches.  

When my husband read that post, he accused me of having become a raging radical when he wasn’t looking, and asked whether I was actually calling for the replacement of all the schools in the country with learning communities. “What would you do with the 80 or whatever percent of people who are okay with the current system?”   I reminded him I’ve always raged a bit.  I used to say I wanted schools to be bulldozed and the ground salted so they couldn’t grow up again.  (Put it down to OEs!)

But his point had sunk home.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Camazotz.  A Wrinkle in Time does not seem to me today quite as brilliant as it seemed when I read it originally.  But its evil is demonstrably evil, which is why I reread it in the first place, to support my own extreme distaste for age-grade, lockstep, factory schooling–way too much uniformity. 

The danger of uniformity of thought and the total dismissal of all other viewpoints seems a bigger threat than ever in today’s world.  One has only to think of our recent election and the hostilities that are still going on in its aftermath to see why some would find relief in everyone thinking the same way they do. People whose ultimate goals and intentions are much the same have come to think of one another as enemies thanks to a disagreement over how to achieve those goals and intentions.  The more I thought about Camazotz, the more IT-like my own wish to rid the world of factory schools began to sound. 

And then I encountered an interview with Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose new book Birth 2012 and Beyond considers what she calls humanity’s “Great Shift” to conscious evolution.  Her thoughts are just what I needed.  Many people who have commented on my “Redefining the Wrong Word” post in various venues have spoken of the need for and the supreme unlikelihood of a paradigm shift of sufficient magnitude to fundamentally change education.  Hubbard’s “conscious evolution” is a way forward.  

She suggests that allowing people to find something new to do or commit to in their own lives that can help with positive evolution, “is far better than if you ask people to do the same thing together” [italics mine].  She speaks of social synergy and explains how it differs from cooperation.  “Cooperation could be many different things, including ‘We’ll help you if you help us.’ Synergy happens when one group has a yearning to express something that another group feels the need for, and vice versa.  So you get to be uniquely more of who you are by joining than you do by remaining separate.  …That’s a big growing edge for human endeavor right there. When we come together in synergy, each person or group gets celebrated, amplified and empowered.” 

What if we could find ways for all the groups who care about and work for gifted kids (the kids themselves, parents, teachers, counselors, academics, theoreticians, pediatricians, school administrators and yes, politicians) involved in social synergy, working in their own individual way, but jointly focused on the best developmental future for the kids?

Pretty much everything on the planet is in the midst of massive change.  The time is past for top-down planning and the old hierarchies.  There is no single “IT” mind that can possibly have the answers to all the questions humanity needs to address.  We need to stop seeing different ideas as a threat and begin to look for what aspects of other points of view could support, supplement, or create new possibilities for our own.  There is no them and us in our need to support the growth and development of our children—WE are part of a fully interrelated whole, and it is our very differences that create the possibilities for positive evolution.  

And speaking of massive planetary change, how can any of us be satisfied with an educational paradigm designed quite purposefully to put limits on all the variety of developing minds with both the ability and the desire to push ahead into unexplored territory?  Almost everything that faces us these days is unexplored territory, whether we like it or not!  Instead of labeling these out-of-the-ordinary minds arrogant or elitist—or odd or broken, let’s invite them all into the conversation about possible ways to move forward.  Any for whom the past methods seem to provide what they need, let them stay with those.  Transition times are just that—times when the old and the new overlap.  But let us please quit kidding ourselves that past methods are “best methods” and acknowledge that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of possibilities. And let’s give young minds more respect than we have generally granted them before.  Let’s not just talk—let’s listen!  

There are other values in A Wrinkle in Time and the later books about the Murry family that may seem to be fantasy.  But who knows what real synergy could begin to show us?  There is a great deal more to mind than intellect and it could be time to quit limiting the rest of mind, too!  

Instead of what’s wrong with other thoughts and other ideas, let’s begin looking for what’s right with them.  Just as there is no one-size-fits-all method, there are none that are all brilliant or all worthless. Imagine that our lives depended on developing synergy.  They just might!

hands-earth

Strands of Light

2 Nov
Hurricane Sandy

It has been a long time since I have had the time, combined with a strong need, to write something for The Deep End.  This week provided both, when the fury of Sandy-the-Super-Storm shut down a surprising amount of what passes for normal on our continent.  Yes, lots of us –most of us—were outside the storm path, but given the importance to our country of the Northeast coastal states, there has been something of an enforced pause.  Many people who meant to fly somewhere ended up somewhere else, or not flying at all.  The power grid that we so fully depend on proved once again to be fragile in the face of wind and water, and the edges of our country that looked one way on Google Earth one day looked very different the next.  It isn’t a disruption that can be ignored.

“What passes for normal.”  It’s a phrase that the storm washed up in my mind the way it washed boats onto railroad tracks and shoved cars into a tangle in lower Manhattan parking garages. As a person who now looks for what there is to be grateful for in any given situation, I am still hugely challenged by the Big Bad Events that are occurring with apparently greater and greater frequency on our planet.  One can, of course, be grateful that any one of those events hasn’t happened to us personally (not only did the storm pass us by, but our kids and grandkids in New Jersey and NYC came through it okay).  Still that doesn’t feel enough in the face of images of people who very much are NOT okay. 

In the thirty-plus years I’ve been paying particular attention to extremely bright kids, one of the things that I’ve noticed and written about is their tendency to question what passes for normal, often because what passes for normal (the expectation about who they should be and how they should function for instance) doesn’t work for them.  But that isn’t the only reason they question it.  They notice that what passes for normal doesn’t work for others, either. 

One of the reasons super bright kids are at risk for an early experience of existential depression is that they’re able to conceptualize how the world ought to be, and are aware, from their own observation or the daily news stories, of how far from that ideal it really is.  They may see that adults—the people who “run the world”—either somehow don’t notice the gap between ideal and real, or don’t care enough or aren’t smart enough to fix it.  That can be really scary.  From global issues of war, poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, animal cruelty to unfairness in the classroom and bullying on the playground, these are all, to one degree or another, considered normal and the kids are aware of and upset by that. 

When far away catastrophes happen, child psychologists are often quoted in the media, advising parents to assure frightened or upset children that those bombs or that earthquake or those wildfires won’t come near them, won’t take their houses or their loved ones or their pets.  But even very, very young highly gifted kids are not frightened and upset solely about themselves!  They are upset for those these catastrophes really are happening to. Many of these children feel connected to the other beings in the world, from people to animals and plants.  They seem from the beginning to “get it” that when one strand of the web of life is stretched or broken, the whole web is affected.

For this reason I have often called these children the “necessary other,” the individuals in our species who are able to perceive in new ways, invent new possibilities, demand changes in what isn’t working, because they see and feel what isn’t working.

But the other night, when I was lying awake worrying about how the city of New York and the northeastern states faced with such immense destruction were going to be able to make things work again, an image came into my mind of strands of light reaching from person to person all across the country, gathering in all those places affected by the storm and providing more light and warmth in that cold darkness.  Some strands were very, very thin, no more substantial than spider webs, some were larger and brighter.  But there were a great many of them–millions

It came to me quite clearly that human beings are social animals by their very nature.  When we see images of other beings in pain, we have an innate impulse to reach out, to help, to share resources.  The images that come to us from the devastation of something as massive as that storm are not just images of destruction, they are also images of people helping each other.  Some of those helpers are workers who have chosen to be the first responders to trauma, but many—probably most, many of whom don’t get on camera—are just people who see a need and choose to help. 

Maybe it isn’t so much that these super-sensitive kids are “other,” but that they develop those deeply human impulses early and powerfully, and insist on expressing them.  As with the other over-excitabilities, their empathy is aroused by a smaller stimulus and affects them more deeply over longer periods of time than is true of other kids, or even of many adults. 

During the cold war when there was a great deal of fear in this country about a possible nuclear war with Russia, it was discovered that children’s fears could be alleviated a bit if they saw their parents or caregivers taking some kind of action, however small, in favor of cooperation and peace.  This is a time to do whatever we can to show that we are “doing something” to help the people whose lives have been devastated.  For some of us it can be contributing money to relief agencies, or helping to organize fund-raisers.  Kids can help with any and all of this and get a sense of empowerment. 

But there are other ways of “doing something” as well.  One way is to reframe the whole story for our children.  We can point out all the examples of people helping people.  We can assure them that even though what passes for normal among humans may have flaws and compromises, this species they belong to has a deep impulse to cooperate, to share, to care!  When a strand of the web is broken there is always a rush to repair it.  Not every single individual may be willing to put another’s needs first even when catastrophe occurs.  But many do, and the light of their willingness to help, like a single candle in a big, dark room, pushes back the shadows a bit.  Every “strand of light,” of caring, that reaches from one person to another is real and has an effect, even if we can’t always see it.  As The Little Prince tells us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

“…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…”

20 May

How many of us were told at some point in our lives that we were not living up to our potential

I was.  I was a high achiever in school—mostly A’s, a fantastic (probably intuitive) ability to take tests.  But my potential?  Suppose I got a 98 on a test.  “What happened there?” my father would ask.  Once, the Director of Studies at my high school wrote a note on my report card about the B+ I got in a demanding, college-level biology class.  “For a person of Stephanie’s potential,” her note said, “a B+ is not an acceptable grade.”  There was in my world the idea that there were only two alternatives:  A (better yet A+) and F; perfection or failure.  

It has taken many decades (and some costly therapy) to extricate myself from that mindset.  As Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, says, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.” 

Just in the last few weeks, during all this conversation in the “gifted realm” about achievement and eminence (an old conversation that has only taken on this recent intensity because of an effort to make it holy writ instead of a conversation), I have come to see the charge of not living up to one’s potential as a toxin.  These days we worry about toxins in our food, about dangerous drugs, about tainted air and water, but we freely dispense the toxic judgment of unfulfilled potential to ourselves and our children (most especially those labeled as in some way more full of “potential” than others). 

Eleven years ago in an online seminar I was conducting, a mother expressed concern that if her child chose to follow some deep current interest, he might not reach the top of his field.  That was her goal for that child—to reach the top of his field.  I have talked about the cages schools create for cheetahs—think of what a narrow goal it is, what a tight and limited pathway such a goal creates for any person, let alone any child.  How could he even be sure the goal had been attained—isn’t it pretty much always a matter of opinion?  (I can’t help thinking of Edison and Tesla for instance.)  And if he could somehow prove he had reached the top, how long could he stay there?

This toxin is often put out with the best of intentions.  Whether it’s a teacher with a bright student who doesn’t turn in homework, a mother worried that a child isn’t getting the support necessary to develop her unusual intelligence, a politician concerned that we are losing the productivity of our finest minds, or a father furious over his son’s laziness or passion for video games, people seem to think that living up to one’s potential is a good and necessary thing, perhaps the only road to success. 

Here’s the thing.  None of us lives up to our potential!  We all use only bits and pieces of our minds.  Even if we were to leave out the distinction between mind and brain, we know that the potential of the human brain is vastly complex and no matter how fervently we study it, its capacities continually astonish us.  

Savants have been the source of many surprises, of course.  From “Rain Man’s” ability to instantly tell how many toothpicks spilled out of a box, to Leslie Lemke’s ability to play full length classical piano pieces after a single hearing, to Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to fly over a cityscape and then draw what he’s seen in excruciating detail and perfect scale, the things savants can do confound us and send us searching for explanations of how certain brain deficits might result in extreme surpluses of one kind or another.  Still, the very fact that any human can do these things means that such a potential exists (one way or another) in the human brain. 

There are a great many mental capacities that most of us would consider “impossible” that are not only possible to some individuals but may be available to anyone open to experiencing them.  There are people who are able to read with their hands rather than their eyes, for instance.  I first encountered this phenomenon in a woman with extreme intuitive capacities, who was also dyslexic.  So difficult had reading been for her as a child that she was driven to find an alternative to using her vision in order to access the information on a written page.  She discovered that she could “download” what was on the page by running her hands over it.  

I know of at least two people who have conducted experiments to test for this ability with young children, who report that this is not a rare phenomenon—just one that our current theories of brain and mind can’t explain.  The younger the child (therefore the less caught in our ideas of what is and is not possible) the more likely that child is to be able to acquire information from a printed page this way—both photographs and words.  Says one of those experimenters, “We could probably all do this, but nobody ever told us we can, so we have never tried.”  The other has found that some adults can do it as well, but with considerably greater difficulty.  (I can’t, of course, give you citations from peer-reviewed scientific journals for these experiments—they are not the sorts of experiments scientific journals are interested in publishing.  At least not yet.) 

It has been suggested that the more we study the brain the less we understand consciousness.   

You don’t have to be willing to allow nonrational mysteries like reading with the hands into your own world view to be aware of the extraordinary reach of human mental processing.  We can recognize the kids we’re calling mermaids here by the “impossible” things they do within the range of the rational.  What kind of brain/mind does it take for a six month old to begin speaking in full (if short and perhaps not perfectly pronounced) sentences?  Most child-development experts would say that couldn’t be done because a child of that age does not have a brain developed enough to begin using verbal language.  But there are children who do it.  Forty years ago parents did not think of teaching their infants sign language so that they could communicate before developing the ability to speak.  But the success of this (now not at  all uncommon) practice has shown us that infant brain/minds are far more attuned to and able to process language than previously thought. 

Julian Stanley famously said that the “mathematically precocious” kids he brought into SMPY could learn algebra in from 0 to 15 hrs.  Zero hours?  Really?  Yes.  There are children who seem to come with algebra “pre-loaded” into their mental systems.  Just as there are those who seem almost to “recognize” languages that no one in their world uses, so that they can learn or teach themselves those languages with lightning speed.  How is this possible?  The very easy answer is that we don’t know.  The list goes on and on.  The abilities shown by prodigies are very little different from savant capacities, though the prodigy does not have countervailing deficits. 

Finally, of course, there is the problem of “multi-potentiality.”  Being able to do many things doesn’t necessarily mean we will or even should do them all.  A person with vast, varied, complex and extraordinary capacities may not want to follow some of them.  And if she does have a passion for all of them, may find it hard to choose a direction in life.  Under the pressure of their diversity she might take a side trail that leads away from any of them, or she could bounce from one to the other and piece together a patchwork of a life path that looks nothing like success from the outside.  And then there’s the impact of life itself.  It can be very, very tough.  There is no way to know how much of “recognized intellectual potential” might have to go into just figuring out how to survive.  

And finally, where do the concepts of personal fulfillment, joy, peace, happiness or the ability to come to the end of one’s life free from the misery of a long trail of regrets come into this conversation?  Let’s just get over this potential thing.  Potential is unlimited.  A single human life is not.