Puzzling over what we mean by giftedness


After we meditate and pray for people at our Wednesday morning group, we often get into intriguing discussions, as though our minds have been opened up through the process of praying. Today we got onto the subject of what it means to be gifted at something. Bill shared how relatively late in his life he has found himself becoming a writer, and through the discipline of focusing on the craft, Bill has become a far better writer than he could have imagined earlier in his life. Hwa talked about discovering a love of origami a couple of years ago when she was recuperating from a liver transplant and needed something to occupy her mind during some difficult, frightening times. The experience of both Bill and Hwa led them to the belief that the skills they had developed were not so much special gfts, and that if others were to similarly devote their time to acquiring these crafts, they would be able to do so as well.

We often refer to Lois, another member of our healing prayer group, as having a special gift for hospitality. On Sunday mornings she is remarkably attentive to the presence of visitors, extending herself with warmth and graciousness. Many members of our church have testified to the extraordinary impression Lois’ personal welcome made on them the first time they visited, drawing them into our fellowship. Lois, however, becomes embarrassed whenever we praise her for her gift. She insists that what she does isn’t an innate ability, but that she learned how to practice hospitality from her husband Jack, a very kind-hearted, outgoing man who made hospitality his personal ministry. Jack died suddenly seventeen years ago after 31 years of marriage, and it is clear in Lois’ mind at that point she was forced to come out of her shell, determined to carry on the ministry that her husband had modeled for her.

When I was a boy I found basic math enjoyable; it was a game for me, and I excelled at it. Somewhere in middle school, however, something shifted inside of me, and math became for me a boring, tedious thing. I lost the willingness to pay attention to the realm of mathematics, and in doing so, I lost ability.

I came across a study somewhere that looked at the puzzling fact that professional soccer players in Europe were far more likely to have birthdays that fell in the months of January, February, or March than in any other month of the year. Various theories were explored unsuccessfully in attempt to explain this fact, until someone figured out that in Europe January 1 is the cut off age for children being permitted to participate in the youth soccer programs of their peer groups. What this meant was that at the earliest levels of youth soccer, children born in the first three months of the year had the developmental advantage that a few months of growth provides at young ages. Consequently, they were more likely to experience success, receive praise, and in general find enjoyment in playing soccer, which in turn motivated them to pay attention over the long haul to develop their soccer skills. In other words, the data pointed away from the significance of innate athletic ability and towards the importance of a willingness to put in the hard work required to develop great skill.

So what exactly does it mean to say someone is gifted with a particular ability? What is occurring to me is that what we really mean is that this person discovered somewhere along the way a willingness to pay attention in this particular area. In one sense we could say that anybody could develop most any gift to some degree if they were so to chose. And yet, there’s the rub: We aren’t motivated to so choose. Something has to capture our attention, and in doing so, inspire the willingness on our part to devote the time, energy, and discipline required to develop the gift.

What is required in capturing our attention in particular areas? A couple of things occur to me. First, we require attractive models of the ability. Obviously, the dynamic math teacher who delights in her subject matter is more likely to capture the student’s attention than the dull teacher who is just putting in time until his retirement. The second thing though that is required is a certain openness on our parts to having our attention captured. It is so easy for us, particularly once we’ve left our youth behind, to close our minds down to new areas of exploration. Sometimes, as in the case of Hwa’s major surgery, life jars us open in new ways.

A strange synchronicity. As I was writing this essay, my son was online working at a math website on which his teacher gives him assignments. Bobby hasn’t done especially well with math, in large part, I think, because it hasn’t caught hold of him. Tonight, however, he is going well beyond what his teacher assigned, finding pleasure in the sense of mastery he is experiencing. He drew me in, and I remembered a pleasure from long, long ago of solving geometry puzzles. It’s never too late to recapture an old quest.

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