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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.

Image

When the Going Gets Tough…

20 Nov golden-rule

golden-ruleI would advise anyone feeling fear or desperation after this election to consider two contrasting works of art. One, this painting by Norman Rockwell that became the cover of an issue of Life Magazine in 1961, takes only a moment to consider. It beautifully illustrates humanity’s diversity with the reminder of the Golden Rule that, in one expression or another, is found in most of the World’s religions. Almost all of us learned the rule as children. But this image of the diversity of humanity frightens a significant portion of our population, even as it seems an obvious and positive truth to others of us.

The other work of art (film art) takes a commitment of a little more than two hours. It is “All the Way,” a movie made in 2016 about Lyndon Baines Johnson during a year in the life of our country, between the assassination of JFK in November 1963 and his own election in November of 1964. The movie (which synchronistically arrived in my mail box from Netflix yesterday) tells the tough story of the early civil rights movement and the political struggle to begin healing the racial divide that was built into this country’s foundation by the original political compromise that allowed slavery to stand. The Golden Rule did not figure in the way LBJ went about his mission to pass JFK’s Civil Rights bill! Johnson considered politics to be warfare, and he treated it (and his opponents and friends) accordingly. That form of warfare is how the Civil Rights Act was made law, and how the Voting Rights Act came into being.

I watched that movie this morning and it gave me the sense that anyone can surprise us, there is always hope, and the values that mean the most to some of us are not (and probably never will be) accepted by others of us. We can’t sit back, do nothing, and assume that they will be upheld inevitably. 

Immediately after the election I, like many of you, was in deep grief and mourning for the image in the Rockwell painting, the image of America that I believed was actually, step by step, becoming reality. That first day (11/9 in our way of representing dates, 9/11 in much of the rest of the world’s way) I was asked to write something to help parents of gifted children cope with the fear (and hatred) this election seemed to have unleashed. And I had to say I couldn’t do it. Not yet. Not while I was still trying to cope myself.

I’ve had eleven days now, roller coaster days that included a beautiful, love-and-light-filled candle-light vigil in Brooklyn and a “protest march” in Manhattan where I carried a sign that said “Feed the Good Wolf” (if you don’t recognize it, you can check out what my sign meant here: http://www.sapphyr.net/natam/two-wolves.htm ). There were also some sleepless nights where fear and negative imaginings took over. But watching the movie reminded me of who I am and what I know. And brought me, finally, to my keyboard.

I remember that year of 1963-64 very, very well, but had not realized how important those memories are. Of  that year and all the others I’ve lived.

Because I know the power of the stories we tell, and their effects on the lives we experience, I don’t buy into the cultural story that I am “elderly.” But I am an elder—a grandmother, both biologically and in the way indigenous people view “the Grandmothers.” I have lived through a lot. 

I was born into a world where Anne Frank was in a concentration camp, not long after America entered what became its last “good war”–a war that ended with the use of the atomic bomb on two cities. That choice changed our concept of war ever after. I was a child in an America where women had few “career” options and were expected to have an entire life of raising children and being a “helpmeet” to a man. I saw the newspaper images of black men hanging from trees at a time when lynching, the night time riding out of the KKK, firebombing, and burning crosses were “just how it was” in the American South. And I remember the marches and the fire hoses and the dogs. I remember the Life Magazine that came into my mail box with a cover photograph of the massacre at My Lai (an image I can never erase from my mind), and the night one of our sons thought a war movie on television was “the news” because his whole life had been lived during the war in Viet Nam.

And here is what I know. That our country now truly is less dreadful than it was. I was a privileged Midwestern white girl who never knew a single black child in all my growing up years, who knew diversity only as white Catholic or Protestant or Jew. And yet I deeply believe in the current existence of an America that shows the full range of diversity we see in the Rockwell painting, with the addition (which Rockwell did not include), of the LGBT community. I remember all too well my years in a university theatre department where most of the gay guys were married, in an effort to stay safe and hidden, and Lesbian women were “lucky” to be allowed to live together, viewed by society as “spinsters” who just hadn’t been able to find a husband.

We and our children must not lose heart! More people did NOT vote for this president (and what he vocally proclaimed he stood for) than did. And more people do NOT support his most heinous language, behavior and apparent intentions than celebrate them. Yes, it is true that we seem to be entering dangerous times, when darkness appears to be falling around us, threatening to blot out the light. But darkness has always been part of our lives. And light is a force. The only way darkness can conquer light is for light to quench itself. In human terms, quenching our light means giving up, hiding out, failing to stand up for the human values we believe in, letting fear rule us, and choosing hatred. 

In the midst of the sabre-rattling of the Cold War, Phil Donahue brought an audience of teenagers to his talk show, and one of the questions he asked them was how many of them expected a nuclear war during their lifetime. Almost all of them raised their hands. Some researchers found at that time that the children least anxious about the possibility of nuclear war were those in whose lives parents or other adults of importance to them were taking some kind of action against war. It didn’t have to be a very big thing—writing or calling their congressional representatives, marching in anti-war protests, communicating with colleagues in Iron Curtain countries. Children needed to see adults they depended upon doing something to protect them from their worst fears.

That was when I wrote Pride of the Peacock, about a child terrified of nuclear war, and Katherine Paterson and I created a poster with the signatures of many of the writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and others involved in creating literature for children in this country, vowing to always speak out against the first strike use of nuclear weapons that was our nation’s official policy. We took that poster with us to a bilateral symposium on children’s literature and art in the Soviet Union and let the makers of children’s literature there sign it as well. And we gave that poster away to schools and libraries to post where children could see that we did not agree with our country’s policy.

So when you wonder what you can do now, do something. Show your children that this representative democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and if the politicians in Washington (and their constituents who voted them into office) do not understand that and think they can take us back into the darkness of our history, we will not stand idly and quietly by. We do not have to join the hate speech, must not treat those who supported the president-elect the way some of them treat those they dislike and fear. It helps to remember that hatred almost always arises out of fear. If we can conquer our own fear and stand for the light, showing that example to our children, we can help them (and ourselves) through this dark time. Yes, it is a dark time. We need to hold onto what light we can.

Some of us (myself included) have to avoid the news just now because our sensitivities make us vulnerable to despair. We cannot afford despair. Kindle the light inside and keep it burning any way you can, standing as an example to the younger generation. Don’t freak about fascism and Nazi Germany or slavery and the KKK, or the worst of our country’s history–stand with the statement “never again!” Trust that we can—and will–move in a better direction even if it takes time and seems to be going the wrong way. Have courage, take heart, speak out. Donate what you can to those who need resources to carry on, and help your children find a cause to volunteer for or raise money for that will help themselves or someone else who is in danger of becoming a victim of the darkness.

We’ve made it through dark times before. That knowledge is what being a Grandmother gives me.  We can do it again. We will do it again. Each step, no matter how small, takes us forward, and however gradually, upward. And think of that FB meme I’ve seen a lot lately: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” Remember this: seeds are designed to germinate in darkness!

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.

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.

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?

Are We Redefining the Wrong Word?

27 Nov

NAGC 2012

 As George Betts pointed out today or last night on FaceBook, this year’s convention of the National Association for Gifted Children was perhaps the most polarized, fiercely divided convention in recent years.  A year ago the organization’s president, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius gave an address that argued the need for the field to come together under the umbrella of a new and singular definition of giftedness, of a unified concept that could and should direct both educational programming and research—Talent Development.  It is unlikely that she had any idea before she gave that speech advocating unity that it would unleash a firestorm of controversy and develop over the following months a split just about as intense and fraught as the current split between America’s political parties. 

Oddly, my own experience of the convention was extremely positive overall.  Others who share my focus on the internal world of the gifted child, and on the fundamental developmental differences between the gifted and other children, had been stirred up by such an overt challenge to and dismissal of their perspective.  They showed up to any sessions that fit that perspective with an unusual level of passion.  I doubt that in the more than 25 years I’ve been attending and speaking at NAGC I’ve ever experienced more enthusiastic and responsive audiences. 

As usual, the Columbus Group gathered after the convention, to share with each other our experiences over the last year and consider what we as individuals and—now that we’re out in the open—as a group, can and should do going forward.  I arrived home wiped out and faced with only two days to get ready for Thanksgiving.  I’ve been home now for a week, and my mind has been seldom at rest as I’ve pondered my experiences in Denver. 

Patricia Gatto-Walden and I did a presentation this year, titled “What the Kids Want You to Know: It’s My Life.”  A group in the UK 20 years ago took the keynote of the World Conference (a speech focused on gifted education as a way to make the best use of each culture’s natural resource of bright kids to benefit their country) to the kids at summer camps for the gifted and asked for their feedback.  Taking a cue from them, we read aloud the shortened version of Paula’s speech that appeared in Compass Points to our Yunasa campers.  Expecting no more than a handful to show up, we invited anyone who wanted to respond to it to share their thoughts for an hour long session.  So many kids (nearly a third of the campers) were willing to give up regular camp activities for that hour, that we could barely fit them into the room we had available.  They spoke enthusiastically for the full hour and several of them asked afterward that we send them the full text of the Subotnik, Worrell and Olszewski-Kubilius monograph that had formed the foundation for Paula’s speech.  

Few of these kids knew anything about NAGC, and one of the first questions they had was, “Does this organization have kid members?”  

We said it does not.  Quite naturally, the kids thought this was outrageous—“How can it be for gifted kids, then?  Don’t they get it that we have pretty good ideas about what we need?  Do they think we don’t think about education during all the time we’re in school?”  

What shocked me was not their question, but that I had never asked it myself.  I’ve been aware, of course, that schools bring kids to NAGC, most often to perform, sometimes to serve as panel members in a session or two.  But kid members? I hadn’t considered it necessary.  

A Moment in the Wayback Machine 

From the time my five year old son had the “head-on collision” with school that led me to begin learning everything I could learn about gifted kids, I have thought that it isn’t really the existence of kids with unusual intelligence that creates a need for specialized “gifted education,” it’s the way education is structured in this country and in most of the rest of the world.  It’s a factory model created well over a hundred years ago and it has changed only slightly since. Children are treated pretty much as interchangeable cogs (or, with an emphasis on product, as “widgets.”) 

At the very first gifted conference I ever attended a speaker said, “If God had known what schools would be like, He wouldn’t have made kids the way he did.”  I thought it was a clever statement, but its full impact escaped me at the time.  After all, school was school!  I’d known what that meant since my October birthday allowed me to start kindergarten at age four in a system with a December cut-off date.  

In the 1980’s, when I had begun to write and speak about the needs of gifted kids, I said in several talks that if school were done differently, we wouldn’t need the designation “gifted kids.”  

People invariably argued with me, pointing out that gifted kids would still learn faster, more broadly, more deeply, and more connectedly than others and we’d still have to diagnose those learning differences.  I agreed that gifted kids wouldn’t vanish—but that if we found a way to individualize education to meet the needs of every student, doing the same for the gifted would be just part of the deal.  I kept remembering what my son said one year when I asked him after we’d moved—yet again!—whether the kids at his new Quaker school would tease him for wearing Kmart sneakers instead of the currently popular expensive brand.  “Mom!  Nobody teases anybody for being different in a school where everybody’s different!” 

The absolute joy of that school was that the children were treated as individuals.  Yes, they went to classes mostly based on age, but within those classes, probably because of their specifically Quaker focus on that of God in every person, each child was respected for being him or herself.  But it was a small school and “everybody knew” (including me) that the whole country’s public system just couldn’t afford to be run that way. 

When that school ran out of grade levels for my accelerated son, I briefly considered homeschooling, because we lived in Norfolk, VA, the only city in the USA where at that time homeschooling was legal. I’d been reading John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling and conversing with him by mail for a couple of years by then, loving his ideas and the freedom they provided for the kids. He didn’t focus on gifted kids–just kids.  A friend of mine had illegally homeschooled her son back in Ohio (which had necessitated “hiding” him in the house all day every day) and insisted that it was the only way to individualize sufficiently to truly meet the needs of an exceptionally gifted child.  But it was not in the cards for my family—I didn’t have the necessary patience and my extraverted son was horrified at the whole idea and refused even to consider it. 

What Do We Mean by Child? 

As I’ve thought about how the two sides in the current definition argument might possibly come together, it has occurred to me that maybe gifted isn’t the problem word.  The problem word is child.  Why does NAGC not have child members, when its stated mission is to serve children?  Because today children are still defined by the field of education not as young individual human beings with individual needs and minds and drives and lives, but as a class of beings in need of being taught by adults what they presumably will need to know when they become adults.  

There is an extent to which that definition makes sense, of course.  Children have a lot to learn and there’s a long period of dependency during which they need to be sheltered, touched and held and cared for, fed and dressed.  Human children need to interact with other humans (though not exclusively with adults) to learn language. Much of what they learn begins with observation and imitation. And of course there are all those tricky things like silverware to handle, stairs to navigate, windows not to fall out of, streets to cross. Plus there are reading, writing and arithmetic, which many of them will first be exposed to in school.  

But what we believe about children has changed. There was a time when a child was thought to be an empty vessel, waiting for adults to fill it up with information.  (Just last year I saw a YouTube about educational reform that actually still said this!)  Science long ago showed that belief to be in error.  Human children are learning creatures determined to explore and manipulate their environment, to test and try, to build and tear down, to question and experiment and interact with whatever other living creatures they encounter—all of which can be classed as “play” in the early years.  And today in any household with technology, they mostly find a way either to use that technology on their own or get someone to show them how. 

The sooner we put them in “school” where the primary activities are to sit still, be quiet, listen, wait for and then follow directions, answer questions “correctly,” and judge themselves in terms of how other children are doing at these tasks, the sooner we begin to limit their natural modes of learning. Instead of play that expands their experience and mastery, learning becomes what they do (or rather what they are directed to do) in school.  There is very little difference in what they are directed to do, one student to another, and little if any concern about individual interests or personal choice.  Natural learning gives way to coercion, solitary activity directed toward a predetermined goal, and a teacher’s external validation or criticism of their efforts. 

(One could ask oneself just what sort of adult life these “lessons” are designed to prepare them for.  Factories, yes.  But factories are either in other countries now or use a lot of robots.  Schools should not be in the business of programming human robots!) 

Meantime, as the Yunasa campers told us last summer, the adults don’t ask them what they need or listen to them when they express their needs anyway.  

And What Do We Mean by School? 

Like it or not, times have changed! How often have you heard one adult say to another, who is struggling with some aspect of current technology, “what you need is a ten year old.” When my now nine year old grandson was two, he was already more adept at using his father’s computer to find what he wanted to interact with on the internet than I was.  Now he scoffs at my efforts to learn something new on my “too smart” phone.  It isn’t only theory that tells us that learners can be teachers and teachers learners.  It is our everyday lives. And there is a tsunami of information available to and through the new technologies that kids are more adept at finding than many of us. 

It is long past time to give up schools or redefine them as learning communities, where it is not just age that creates groups, but interests (passions), knowledge, experience and needs.  In such learning communities there could be webs rather than boxes–language, math, history, geography, art, meant to be dealt with separately in small blocks of time–webs that could interweave what is known in service of creating something new, or helping the learner to grasp new information and move into and understand greater complexity.  And children need to have a voice in how such learning communities would or could operate; because children are unhampered by the structures and restrictions of prior experience; they lack our long memory of “how it has always been” that would hold them back from imagining how it could be.  

Our gifted kids, so very interested in learning, so passionate about exploration, could genuinely help to lead the way.  One of their major differences (at least until we squash it out of them with work sheets and grades and gold stars and tests, grade point averages, boundaries and limitations) is their rage to learn and understand, and to do something with meaning.  Those same kids who discovered at two how to find what they wanted on a computer screen, have ideas about how learning can happen, progress and change.  And how the technology so many of them love and the games so many of them play, could enhance learning for themselves and other kids. They could work with adults who are willing to collaborate on finding the best ways forward rather than determining and dictating those ways! 

Teachers who love their profession and have passion for their subject matter could, in learning communities, be freed to practice that profession instead of struggling to prepare a broad spectrum of kids in a narrow age range to succeed on standardized tests that really can’t measure either student learning or teacher competence. 

We can’t have what we can’t first envision.  And we are in a deep and dreadful rut.  I started a Face Book page (www.facebook.com/deependxgifted) last November in hopes that those who visited it could begin thinking in new ways and sharing their visions about how education could happen if we began over again without schools.  We didn’t get far.  FB pages aren’t that great for collaborative thinking—everything gets pushed down the page and disappears. But that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t be taking place. 

We have to find a way to make things work better.  I would welcome the best ideas of the Talent Development folk, but I would want them to acknowledge the existence of kids whose inner experience of the world really is different from the beginning.    It isn’t just our field that’s in crisis and conflict.  Our whole world is at stake.  Pretty much really!  New thinking, new ideas and new partnerships are essential as everything continues to change at warp speed. Let us outsource factory schools to some other planet so that we don’t have to find ways to keep squeezing human children into boxes designed for widgets or robots.

I end all my talks with the following quotation, meant for every human, child or adult, because we need to know that we are not interchangeable!

“You are not accidental.  Existence needs you.  Without you something would be missing from existence, and no one could replace it.”  –Osho

Found this on A Space for Learning, 11-12-12