Zelophehad’s Daughters

Gifted

Posted by Eve

I was that proverbial and justly despised snot-nose, a gifted child. I remember being separated out from my kindergarten class with a few others into a special group for those of us already reading. I remember taking what I’m now sure was an I.Q. test at the end of first grade, sitting on a large chair in a strange office as a strange woman read me strings of numbers from a book and told me to recite them to her backwards. (So much of childhood consists of navigating adults’ inscrutable directives.) I remember the advanced reading and math classes that provided “enriched” activities. (Who was being subjected to the “impoverished” activities, I wonder now?) I remember the gifted class I attended every morning for an hour in third grade. The work was engaging enough, but there was a tense watchfulness about the teachers. I rarely felt that I pleased them, nor did I ever feel quite at ease in that room.

Like athletic prowess or musical ability, giftedness can quickly swallow an identity whole. Paradoxically, it interferes with learning because it inhibits the confession of ignorance. Once you are gifted, can you have a bad day, put your foot in your mouth, admit that you don’t know something, be dumb, be bad, goof off, daydream, waste time? Even at five, I felt uneasy about the extravagant praise I sometimes garnered. My teachers were praising someone else, and dimly I knew I was not the polite, self-restrained, eager-to-please child I seemed. At school I was pathetically overcontrolled, petrified of failure. But at home I was wild, oversensitive, melodramatic. I fought with my brother and sisters, talked back, burst into tears, threw my toys on the floor, refused to eat my vegetables. The praise of school was based on a myth of myself that, having set in motion, I could not stop because I was terrified of authority and terrified to behave in any other way than with absolute and rigid self-control. Sometimes I wanted to quit being so good just to escape the burden of having to be. Yet I craved the praise of my teachers even as I knew it was not me they were praising.

No life can long sustain such constraints or such contradictions. I didn’t last. By eighth grade I was so depressed that for weeks I couldn’t so much as write my own name at the top of my papers, and my glory days were over. It was both a loss and a relief.

The end of my giftedness is the inevitable end of every such story. At some point–high school, college, graduate school–you hit your level, where everyone is just as gifted as you are, and many are more. It is the end of a life that finds its meaning in excelling others, but equally the beginning of other ways of living. Now that I’m old enough to be a garrulous nontraditional student, I find myself asking every question I once swallowed in fear, without pausing to consider how dumb I might sound. The freedom not to know, to be wrong, to be at peace with one’s own utter ordinariness: we so misprize such wild and precious liberties.

Our faith promises the gifts of the spirit. Before God we are neither loved nor reviled for them, but given them that we might learn love in their holy uses. A spiritual gift is a language, an invitation to know and love God and one another. And we are judged by our desires for good or evil that find expression in them, not by our gifts themselves. I Corinthians 13 teaches the severe and tender lesson that the only gift that will endure is love. All our gifts fail, or perhaps alternately, in terms of our doctrine of eternal progression, the day will come when like our cast-off mortal social ranks, our gifts will cease to distinguish us from one another because we will stand in absolute equality before God.

Early in my mission, I memorized a passage of scripture in Italian with my companion, Doctrine and Covenants Section 4, that section missionaries the world over probably still recite together every week at district meeting. I’ve always liked memorization and recitation. I like holding the architecture of a poem in my mind’s eye, entering a room of words in a willed rhythm, like striking the strings of an instrument exactly on the downbeat, and savoring the precise musicality of each phrase. To learn by heart is to surrender a piece of yourself to a pattern of language which then has claim upon you. My companion’s favorite verse was, “And if ye have desires to serve, ye are called to the work,” or in Italian, as we said it together, and as it still passes through my mind on sleepless nights, “Se voi avete il desiderio di servire Iddio, voi siete chiamati al lavoro.” My companion was kind, warm-hearted, and outgoing as I’ve never been, and she was merciful to me in my restless weirdness without being condescending. I remember her telling me that no one believed she’d go on a mission. Everyone thought she’d get married instead, which in a swift and bizarre cultural reversal, had the become in some eyes the path of lesser women. She told me how she had quoted that verse to her detractors, confident that her desire alone was enough.

Life strips us beyond nakedness. So much of what we love falsely, and truly, is tenuous. Material things wax old or are lost, we fall into poverty, relationships fail, people we love die. Our minds as well as our bodies can lose their powers to age. Perhaps all that we can hope for in this life is to cultivate our desires for the good. As long as I can desire the good, I can train my heart to hear the sometimes distant but constant call to the work of God, and to respond with whatever means now lie by grace between my hands, knowing that the power of my desire alone is mine.

15 Responses to “Gifted”

  1. 1.

    eve, I am forever overwhelmed by the aliteration in your words. I love reading them, and I love these insightful peeks into your life. I believe I also spent much of my life trying to live up to the “gifted” title I was given as a child. I have found so much relief lately in my life by moving away from what I perceive I should do (based on what so many of family have done) and toward what I want to do. I have chosen a job over grad school and I have found a quiet happiness in my life by doing so, by moving away from those percieved expectations.

  2. 2.

    Elbereth, thanks for your kind words. It’s interesting to hear that you found the gifted label onerous as well. (I really wonder if giftedness as a concept shouldn’t be laid to rest, but that’s probably another post for another day.)

    I think it’s great that you love your job, and I don’t think it will make one whit of difference to any of us if you ever go to grad school or not. I wonder too if we all eventually reaches a point or points in life at which we know that what we need to do is at deep cross-currents with “percieved expectations.”

    I’m glad you like the peeks into my life. Strange, isn’t it, that we’re sisters and yet grew up in two different families–the older kids and the younger kids?

  3. 3.

    Great Post! Thanks.

  4. 4.

    It is good to see you guys back in action, your content is consistently very good. If this is what coming back to life means, then I have a very strong testimony of the resurrection!

    Eve, isn’t it a relief to finally get over yourself? I can remember occasions when I was absolutely insufferable, and I wasn’t even that gifted.

    It is insightful to make the connection to spiritual gifts, and to realize that God gives us various gifts as a means of fulfilling wise purposes. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. In that sense, we are all gifted, or, as Garrison Keillor would say, we are all “above average”.

    It is a unique stroke of genius that our wards are organized along geographical boundaries, that we don’t self-select our congregation based on mutual interests or attitudes, but that we get pushed together with people unlike us. When I get frustrated, I like to think of these verses from 1 Corinthians 12:
    Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:

    23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.

    24 For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked:

    25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.

    26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

    27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

  5. 5.

    I could relate to a lot of this, too. I like your point about how our gifts aren’t connected to our value in the eyes of God. I think where I’ve often gotten off track has been in overidentifying myself with my abilities, which has led at various times to both pride and despair. I’ve found thinking about such things as gifts to be helpful, because it’s a way to avoid both the pitfall of seeing yourself as a little bit better because of them on the one hand, and the rhetoric of self-deprecation, in which people emphasize how very bad they are at everything, on the other. (With regards to the latter, I love the passage in Cat’s Eye where the narrator observes that she realizes how easy it is to be part of the world of girls: “All I have to do is sit on the floor and cut frying pans out of the Eaten’s Catalogue with embroidery scissors, and say I’ve done it badly.”)

    I also really like what you say about the freedom to be wrong, to ask stupid questions. I remember my first year in a theology program, how incredibly liberated I felt; I’d never studied the subject before, so I felt like I could ask anything I wanted–I wasn’t expected to know better. Remembering that makes me realize how much of my experience with formal education has felt like an environment in which students were expected to perform rather than to learn. And how much time I’ve wasted worrying about mistakes.

  6. 6.

    Mark said,

    Eve, isn’t it a relief to finally get over yourself? I can remember occasions when I was absolutely insufferable, and I wasn’t even that gifted.

    Exactly! (I wasn’t that gifted, either–certainly nowhere NEAR as gifted as I thought I was!) The scary thing I find about reflecting on my own past insufferability is that it leads me to the ineviable conclusion that right at this very MOMENT I am being insufferable in ways patently obvious to longsuffering others but that I myself will recognize only in five years, probably in a blinding flash in the middle of sacrament meeting.

    I love those passages from I Corinthians you quote. And the Garrison Keillor thing about “above average” is classic. My husband, who’s a psychologist, tells me there’s now something called “Lake Woebegone Syndrome” which involves everyone shifting above average, or not wanting to be average? I can’t remember what, exactly.

    Lynnette, I think your first year in theology is the perfect example of what education should be but too often isn’t. As you note, it always tends to slide away from learning into performance.

  7. 7.

    You know, Eve, you lose a little credibility when you disclaim giftedness in such exquisite language! You are gifted, my dear, although I understand the arousal in getting naked of one’s childhood descriptors.

    Smartness has been a generally positive plank in my self-understanding. I am insecure, probably at least partly in relation to smartness, but it was far better for me to be insecure and needy about school than, say, about sex or family.

  8. 8.

    Beautiful post, Eve.

    I have a similar story, but struggled as I realized that the veneer had become so much a part of my interaction with others, that I had to learn to be “real.” I think the veneer really cemented itself when, at 22, I became a TA and taught many students who were older than I. I felt I had to solidify the illusion of competance, confidence, and intelligence to survive in that environment. It did teach me that “fake it til you make it” is a useful truism, but I also learned that perfectionism is NOT a strength, at least in my life. Finally, the day I bore my sixth child, I began taking antidepressant/antianxiety meds, and later began counselling to cope with the inevitable failure of all my methods to do and be everything.

    Heh, now I like to burst people’s illusions of me; for example, someone asked me what the secret to my weight loss was. I told her, “I think it’s Wellbutrin.”
    “Really? What’s that?”
    “It’s an anti-anxiety med. I really tanked after having Devony, but didn’t realize the depression for what it was until I was pregnant with Kess. The meds sure helped me work my way back.”
    “YOU??”

    Then we can have a REAL conversation!

  9. 9.

    Rosalynde, thanks for stopping by and exercising faith in our revival (we solemnly promise all four of our faithful readers we’ll try to last a little longer this time ;>). Thanks as well for your kind words about my post.

    I think your comment about insecurity gets right to the heart of the matter. (And I’m still plenty insecure and sometimes outright jealous. It’s probably a life’s work, and more, to overcome, at least for me.) What I wonder, though, is if insecurity/envy and security/pride are both symptoms of something else, something like identifying ourselves with our characteristics. (It’s always struck me that Alma mentions pride and envy right in a row in Alma 5). It seems to me that truly exercising a gift involves a humility, a liberating loss of self, a submission of self to the work to be done, just like the self-surrender of memorizing a scripture or poem or piece of music.
    And that fierce joy that does not exclude sorrow can possess us only in the space where self was. I _love_ language–I love it beyond language for the ways it inhabits me. I love music, too, although I’ve never taken the time or exercised the self-discipline to get as good as it as I’d like to. There are many other disciplines that don’t speak to me (art, accounting, auto repair, and the rare and precious gift of joy in scubbing the toilet) but I recognize the passion if not the gift itself in those who love such pursuits (OK, maybe not the toilets ;>). But in that kind of self-surrender, the joy itself is enough. It’s enough if no one else ever sees its results or praises them. And it’s generous, able to acknowledge the beauty of others’ works and submit to the discipline of their excellence, able to learn from and praise without envy.

    My problem is that all this is a fragile state. I’m easily corrupted by praise; I start thinking, gotta get me some more of that! And the trouble with the praises of men and women is they’re really not very satisfying, so I have to keep going back for a bigger and bigger fix, and the gift is subordinated to the false end of getting praise. I start thinking I _am_ the gift and stake out my identity turf and get really uptight and territorial when it looks like someone else does what I do to define myself, but BETTER! Then both the gift and my idea of myself are an idol, and as always happens with idols, sooner or later, we get razed to the ground.

    It’s a fascinating question, what relationship identity should have to characteristics, one I’d like to think about more. We do properly love people _for_ their characteristics, like God praising Hyrum Smith for the integrity of his heart. But in other ways we aren’t our characteritics, and they can become idols. I don’t know.

    Idahospud, I love your story. It’s so true that confessing our weaknesses to one another is where the reality can begin. Wellbutrin rocks, although it once made me a little manic and caused me to tell my sisters that the GAs were speaking way too slowly in General Conference and explain some strange ways to overcome penis envy. This is the kind of thing a loving family will never let you forget.

  10. 10.

    I’ve wondered a lot too about the relationship of identity to characteristics. I know that often I’ve felt that people liked or valued me for trait x, which has caused tremendous anxiety that if I’m not constantly exhibiting trait x, my worth or like-ability could dissolve in an instant.

    But when I’ve thought about it, it seems to me that when I say (for example), I like that Eve is an amazing writer (obligatory pause to stick out my tongue lest she get a swelled head, as is the duty of a good sister ;), I’m saying that it’s a quality I appreciate about her, not that my liking of her is contingent on it. My sense is that when we say, I like this or that about someone, when we refer to particular characteristics, it’s more a way of expressing that we like them than a way of explaining or giving reasons for it.

  11. 11.

    Lynnette, thanks.

    The great thing about brothers and sisters is that you like me even when I’m dumb. (And during all-night Settlers of Catan marathons, you like me ESPECIALLY when I’m dumb.)

  12. 12.

    Eve, I really responded to a lot in your post (and the subsequent comments made by you and others); I made academic giftedness my entire identity for most of my life. When I got depressed in college and suddenly academics got really hard, my life turned upsidedown, and I still am trying to sort out the pain of losing (in part) who I was.

    I like your focus on joy, surrender, and humility. I, too, find that when I can focus on how much I love academia and teaching and simultaneously try to make praise, etc, less important, my life is calmer and happier. It is hard, though, because the praise was so important to me for so long that it’s difficult for me to be comfortable in my skin without it. I think this is something I’ll be working on for the rest of mortality (and probably beyond).

  13. 13.

    s, hooray! You’re back! Now if Kiskilili can survive her finals….

    I’m so there with you about the destruction mental illness can wreak on achievement and achievement-based identity. It’s a hard and scary truth that we’re all one motorcycle accidental and one nervous breakdown away from losing the gifts on which we may have built our lives. And as you say, it takes a long time to sort through the fallout, maybe more than a lifetime.

    It’s fascinating to me that we’re constantly told to praise our kids. And yet, in my experience anyway, praise can be extremely destructive. At certain painful moments in my life I’ve found myself on my knees begging for my own vulnerability to it to be taken away because I can see the dilemma my hunger for it is creating, I can see myself sprialling into the desperate unstable pride and the corrosive envy, but as is so often the case, seeing the trap isn’t enough to stay out of it.

  14. 14.

    I was gifted all the way through school and clear into my career. The thing was, I didn’t really like being gifted because of the pressure. You couldn’t fail because it would disappoint everyone. And you couldn’t relax because if you rest on your laurels, other people will get ahead and then you’re not gifted anymore. And if I wasn’t gifted, who was I?

    I eventually had the depression and identity crisis a couple of others have mentioned as well, when you realize that you don’t want to live up to everyone else’s expectations anymore, but then also realize that you don’t have any other expectations to judge yourself by.

    So I’m still sorting myself out. What’s cool is that I’m not afraid of failure anymore. Been there, done that. I don’t have anything left to prove to anyone. That’s a very comforting feeling, as opposed to the constant prickles of wondering if you’re measuring up.

    I think kids today get over-praised, and can occasionally lead to the exact sort of problems I had. Have you noticed in the Church that the youth get praised to the skies? And then missionaries get praised to the skies? Then after they get into young adulthood, they’re expected to buckle down and live without the cheerleading squad following them around. Loss of that cheerleading squad can be kind of a shock – all of a sudden no one cares about how much potential you have, they just want to see what you can do.

  15. 15.

    I just read this again. I am so glad this was not my experience in my youth. I went to Catholic schools and the “gifted” label was not used in those days. Were it used, I doubt that I would have qualified as I was a pretty normal child. And I love that about my childhood. My brother would have problably been labeled “gifted” and he was considered the “smart one” in school and at home. I am so glad that I was not overly stressed with appearing smart in those days of my youth. That would come later when I did poorly at my entrance exam in high school being placed in the Vocational Track rather than the College Prep track. But until that point, life was pretty carefree. I read books in the Summer at my mother’s urging, but was not someone who would read a lot for leisure. I did have one of my earliest emotional experiences with a character reading “Harriet The Spy.”. It was great to go to school and have chances to be creative and to not feel like I had to know it all. I liked to learn, but I was not overly stressed by it. I did have a lot of homework as Catholic schools were notorious in those days for practice. Well, I think it is lucky for me that I was a late bloomer. By the way, your feelings of adults and test seem to mirror the feelings of my cousin who was diagnosed at an early age with dyslexia. She hated the eeriness of all that adult observation. She struggled hard through school and received an associates degree. And she improved leaps and bounds in her reading when she married her husband who encouraged her to read for leisure. I do have another cousin who informed the family that she was gifted. I think it was good for her. She came from a very dysfunctional family with a dad who was a womanizer and this may be why she is a lot more together than her sisters. Having someone notice you and make you feel special can be a good thing.

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