There's been a lot of focus on how kids are changing and adapting to modern society lately, particularly in the New York press. After reading "Prairie Fire," Eric Konigsberg's examination of the suicide of a highly gifted child in the New Yorker last week (sorry, no link available) I, like a lot of bloggers I've been reading, was pretty freaked out. This was not just due to the subject matter and the tone of the article, but the empathy I felt with/for the kid who felt alienated as a "gifted" child. After all, I was a socially awkward, "gifted" child, too.
Now you'd never hear me saying I was a genius on the level of the kid in the article, but I was fairly advanced as a youngster, particularly in terms of reading and general comprehension. My mom would probably scoff at the idea that I was socially "off" and say I was just "a funny kid" or "individual", but she saw that I got along better with adults. With kids my own age, I was most often completely mystified by their actions and reactions. In fact, by the age six or so I would say I had pretty much decided that I was an adult trapped in a child's body. I'm not sure how much that had to do with my intelligence or just a psychological reaction to feeling very out of control in my life, but it was not a happy impulse. As the New Yorker article describes, being "gifted" does not always come with having the emotional tools earned with the experience of greater age.
From another quarter, people are claiming that the difference of "gifted" children is due to some universal spiritual and energetic shift. Yes, I'm talking about the "Indigo Children" and their parents recently featured in the NY Times. Along with the theory that ADHD is a sign of higher intelligence, not lack of self-control, proponents of the Indigo Children theory believe that some kids (usually theirs) are born with a higher understanding of the world and special skills, including paranormal ones such as psychic medical diagnosis and treatment. The proposed universal shift allows more "masters" or many-times-reincarnated spirits to return with greater gifts and abilities with which to heal the world and save it from impending disaster.
Well, I'm not sure what to make of all that. The interviewees in the article, naturally, sound like a bunch of fairy-land dwelling yahoos, or at least way more New Age-y than your average bear. The thing is, in the past couple years I have been see-sawing back and forth between agnostic rationalism and some pretty profound spiritual experiences, and I can't seem to decide for myself if I want to be, as Locke put it on Lost, a "man of science" or a "man of faith". (Using "man" in the most gender-inclusive way, of course). I've had a number of people who have decided they lean towards the spiritual side tell me that they think I must be an "Indigo Child" or, in a variant term, and "old soul." The problem is, I'm not sure whether to be flattered or bemused. Sure, they think it's a compliment. It means I'm supposed to be smart, perceptive and very emotionally sensitive. But that emotional sensitivity sure got me on anti-anxiety and depression meds well enough. Not only that, but the flip side of being told you're "special" is the overwhelming bit where it means you're supposed to be special, that is, do special things. And I have a hard enough time getting out of bed sometimes without thinking I'm supposed to be healing the universe or balancing some kind of cosmic vibrations that day, y'know? I mean, can I have a cup of coffee, first? Or is that going to cloud my aura, or something?
I guess it beats being told you're craptastic all the time (although I have my internal critic to do that). And at least most of the time I do make it out of the house. But the impulse to give up and become a hermit has persisted from my childhood of not understanding or feeling understood by other kids into my adulthood of not understanding or feeling understood by other adults, and it seems I'm not the only one. According to the NY Times (again), there's a veritable syndrome among Japanese youth of hikikomori, or "withdrawal", which leaves them shut in their rooms for years doing little but playing video games and eating meals left at their door by their parents. Now, to me this doesn't sound all that much different than the behaviour of your normal 13-year-old in our current electronically-stimulated society, nor that of the infamous "slackers" of the 1990s, minus perhaps some joie-de-vivre. But while in some ways I recognize it as a totally understandable emotional response to retreat from humankind and into one's own world given the state of the "real" one at this point in history, I do acknowledge that it is probably a sign of severe emotional affliction to give up on social contact so completely. I'd like to think I'd go stir-crazy and call somebody to go for coffee if left to my own devices for long enough, but when I'm stressed I do have an alarming penchant for doing nothing but sitting in my robe playing computer games, reading or watching TV for days, with the occasional food or nap break. Fortunately for me, I do have a significant other to interact with even during those times, although, perhaps unfortunately, my parents don't seem able or willing to support me in that lifestyle indefinitely. (And they say they "love" me! Hmmph). The point is, where is the line between "normal" and "healthy" retreat and, say, Howard Hughes-level crazy?
Plus, video games are fun. Huh-huh.
The truth of the matter is, a lot of people probably have these issues to some degree or other, and it's something of a popular tenet that it's hard to tell the difference between a genius and a madman (say it with me all together now: "Vincent van Gogh!"). Classifying people - and especially kids - is always iffy, whether it's as "gifted" or "maladjusted". And as for kids being different nowadays than they used to be, well... yes, and no. Every generation likes to see itself as unique and living in unique times, but the conundrum is that all times and people are unique, and yet also similar. Graffiti on ancient Roman walls and ancient receipts and composition books in the form of cuneiform on clay tablets show us that humans have had a lot of the same basic needs, problems and desires for thousands of years. At the same time, those ancient centurions or tax collectors certainly couldn't type pages of self-absorbed babble and instantly, electronically display them to the world. (Perhaps there is something to be said for the good old days.) So how is it that as we find it easier to send more messages to more people, there are reports that many are feeling more isolated? Could it be that we are just overloaded, or that we need to re-define just what "communication" and "isolation" are?
Weighty questions. As for me, I don't know what to think, besides acknowledging the fact that I am prone to a sort of empathetic hypochondria. I seem to be able to out-feel-your-pain Bill Clinton several times a day, to the point where everybody else's problems clearly must be my problems... and thus I must have the most problems of all. I could say it's silly, or evidence of my exceptional spiritual sensitivity, or I could just say it's human. In the meantime, I'm off to my room to play some video games...