Homo Sapiens and Homo Stupidus: On Giftedness and its Price

898px-Vincent_Van_Gogh_0013I live-blogged in Cambodia recently, fund-raising for a charity. We were to be accompanied by a “Christian celebrity” who had promised to do national talks on her return. The posters had been printed.

Well, she was not at Heathrow. Among several possible forms of ID, she sent off her passport to get her driver’s licence renewed. Had not paid for expedited processing.  So no passport. So despite the charity having paid for her (and ours) ticket, hotel etc., despite extensive logistical planning on the part of charities in Cambodia, she couldn’t fly out!

* * *

Hmm! Clever, successful, achieving, experienced people can do stupid things. It’s part of being human, these flashes of stupidity.

The scientific name for man is “homo sapiens,” literally “wise man.” Our wisdom supposedly distinguishes us from the animals.

However, Linnaeus who first used binomial nomenclature (and whose garden in Uppsala we’ve visited) could just as well have called us homo stupidus, “man the stupid,” for animals are never stupid. They act out of an unwavering instinct for self-preservation, common sense if you like. And their instincts are more reliable than our reason.

* * *

I was surprised at Heathrow. So other adults, sensible, intelligent, achieving adults make such mistakes?

I would have had a disproportionate reaction if it were me—would have felt crushed by shame and guilt and sorrow. I hate to mess up, especially when it messes others up.

Ah, I would show myself and my family grace for occasional flashes of stupidity, I resolved.

Practising… Practising…

* * *

My teenagers, Zoe and Irene, were to fly out to India on the 30th July to stay with my mother.

At midnight on the 29th, the witching hour when one is tempted to throw things, Roy asked, “Don’t they need visas to visit India?”

They didn’t have them.

To my credit, I didn’t throw a thing. Didn’t even say a cross word.  Getting visas didn’t cross his mind, Roy said, though he bought their tickets for them, and went personally to get their visas for their last two visits. How can you blame someone for something that did not cross their minds? Especially when it didn’t cross yours.

They did not fly out. We changed the tickets, and paid a penalty. Ouch!!

* * *

We are homo sapiens and homo stupidus at the same time. They are both equally part of our nature.

As The Book of Job commences, Job has everything: ten children, and thousands of oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels and servants. Then in his Great Depression, he lost everything, even his health.

His wife crumbles. “Curse God and die,” she says.

But Job says, Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Shall we accept gifts from the Lord, and not the liabilities that are the shadow side of those very gifts?

* * *

The fact that we had overlooked getting visas was, ironically, linked to our strengths, our intensity. We got the tickets to India, got tickets to Helsinki, got tickets to David’s Tent, a Christian worship festival, and then, summer logistics done, (we thought!) turned our thoughts to other things: writing, for me; creating new garden beds and worrying about our family business for Roy.

The intensity caused the forgetfulness.

* * *

 Our marital counselling included a DISC assessment (which showed that Roy and I had diametrically opposed personalities, each on the far ends of the graph) and a psychologist administered IQ test. Both of us had IQ in the “superior” range, in the top 5% of the population. (My verbal IQ was significantly higher than my non-verbal IQ. Which explains why I might get lost on my way to your house, or my cooking can be erratic.)

Anyway, the pastor looked at the scores, and said, “Anita, you are the most gifted person I have every counselled.” (And I looked gloatingly at Roy–God forgive me, so I did!)

The pastor’s wife was doing a Ph.D in gifted and talented education, and he lent me a book on giftedness. Part of giftedness, I read, is intensity: your mind works a little faster; you get impatient with slow-moving, frivolous conversations; small talk bores you; you cut to the chase. Waste of time or money, stupidity or folly can feel like a crisis.

When gifted people marry other gifted people, life can be “crisis squared.” Factor in the gifted children who’ll likely result and family life can be “crisis cubed,” they said. In our case, “crisis quadrupled!”

High IQ makes academic work easier. It’s easier to assess, absorb, collate and retrieve information rapidly, abilities which are the foundations of academic success. And these traits are assets in starting a business from scratch, I discovered.

However I also have a higher degree of forgetfulness when it comes to things my reticular activating system has pegged as irrelevant—my mobile number, say, or driving directions, or transferring the laundry to the dryer…

* * *

 My husband once stayed with a fellow mathematician in Tuscon while at a conference. A fellow guest was the legendary Hungarian mathematician Erdos (who has written so many papers that every mathematician has an Erdos number. If you’ve written a paper with Erdoz, you have an Erdos number of 1. If you written  it with an Erdos collaborator you are Erdos 2. Roy is Erdos 3).

The phone rang at breakfast. It was the neighbour. “Do you have a mathematician staying with you? I have him here.”

Erdos had gone on a morning walk, wandered into the nearest big house, located the coffee maker, made coffee, then settled down at the table, scribbling formulae, not noticing his different surroundings at all.

The abstraction, homo stupidus behaviour, was the shadow side of his genius.

* * *

 The shadow side and difficulties of giftedness is particularly pronounced in school. When I was nine, in my first year at boarding school, I was reading the books in the cupboards for 16 year olds. Sister Josephine, the senior school English teacher, read my essays out to the seniors, I was often told.

However–though I had skipped grades and had been put with the 10 year olds– physically, emotionally and spiritually, I was nine, probably younger, because I had concentrated my energies on reading everything I could get my hands on.

All this made my life turbulent.

* * *

 In Baudelaire’s famous poem about the albatross, the very wings which help it soar effortlessly make it ridiculous when captured by mariners who make it waddle on deck, where its giant wings hinder its walk

The same IQ which was an asset at Oxford University or graduate school often made me feel restless in Bible study and sometimes in church. I moved from small group to small group, and church to church in my first years as a Christian, seeking something focused, meaty, fast-paced and intense.

“You will have to remember that in an average group of 20 people, you may well the smartest person,” the pastor explained, looking at my scores. I stared. I had grumbled to him about a fluffy, vapid Bible study.  Yes, that explained my occasional restlessness and irritation during group Bible study, and boredom during sermons.

I realised then that the purpose of church and small groups was not to stretch my brain, but a far more important organ: my heart. To become a student of the people in the group as much as the Word, to learn to love. The purpose of church was not intellectual stimulation, but to worship God in the anonymous great democracy of the faithful–on earth as it will be in heaven.

* * *

Giftedness is a double-edged sword. Our whole personality leans that way. If our gift is composing or writing or painting, and we do not do it, we feel as psychically crippled as if we were trying to function without an arm or a leg.

However, if we develop our gifts single-mindedly, there will be a price. In the phrase of Greg McKeown of Essentialism, we might not “protect the asset” that enables us to exercise the gift—i.e. our selves. We might pursue our gift at the expense of sleep or exercise or rest, thus affecting our physical health. We might pursue it at the expense of time with family, friends, or paying attention to the inner river of our emotional life . We might pursue it at the expense of our spiritual life.

The personal lives of many gifted people betray the scars of having pursued their gifts, or their career, at the expense of their physical, mental, emotional or spiritual health and their relationships.

* * *

 I don’t want to do this. I want to protect the asset—become physically strong (which I am not, though I am “healthy” as defined by the absence of disease or meds). I want to have good relationships with my family and friends. I want to be healthy, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

If we led a balanced life, got our sleep and exercise, spent time with family and friends, spent time with God, kept our homes and lives orderly, would we have enough time to make our gifts shine?

Would I have less time to write? In the short run, yes! Balance means we will have less time to nurture our gifts and passions.

In the long run, not necessarily! We might instead burn brightly, though not dazzlingly, throughout our lives, instead of burning out.

* * *

Fortunately, there are ways to be healthy and balanced and still exercise your gift.

A Do-Not-Do list is one. Mine is extensive, and helps provides fallow time to “sit and stare.”

Part of it: No recreational shopping. I don’t clean (we hire someone); we outsource all handy-man type jobs and heavy-duty garden jobs (though I do garden every day). I outsource all techie blog maintenance. I don’t watch TV. I get together with people twice a week, but am picky about social life, preferring encounters which offer meaningful conversation. Essentially, I try to eliminate trivia, to leave room for what interests me.

* * *

Giftedness is fire which can scorch or destroy its possessor, if not well-managed. And it’s fire which can warm, illuminate and comfort many if wisely managed.

How manage it? Surrender it to God, place the gift in the hands of the Giver, seek his wisdom on how to use it, so that your gifts become gifts to you and the world, fire that will light, warm and comfort, not burn and destroy.


Have you ever been Homo Stupidus? Tell me your stories.

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