An Interview with James T. Webb: Searching For Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment and Hope
Michael F. Shaughnessy
1) Jim, you have just finished yet another book. What brought this one about?
Actually, I have been thinking about—and perhaps living—this book for many years, and the title Searching for Meaning: Bright Minds, Idealism, Disillusionment, and Hope, represents issues that others struggle with as well. As I describe in this early sections of the book, it was prompted by my own early life experiences, growing up in the Deep South and being deeply disillusioned in my teen years by the culture, social and religious institutions, and even members of my own family. During my professional life, as I increasingly worked with gifted children and adults, I began to recognize how many other persons were disillusioned and were searching for meaning, and that bright, idealistic people were particularly like to experience widespread disillusionment. Although I had done workshops for years on the topic of “Adult Gifted: You Don’t Just Outgrow It!,” I was reluctant to write this book. It re-awakened echoes, and also I frankly wondered just how much I had to offer. Life meaning is not only a sensitive topic, but also people search for meaning in many different ways throughout our country and in different cultures. I struggled for five years with the writing of this book, and I probably would never have been able to finish it without the support of several close colleagues who prodded and encouraged me.
2) The title of your book is Searching for Meaning. Do you find that gifted kids, adolescents and adults are searching for meaning in their lives, or this world?
Yes, this is something that I and others have noticed for years. The education pioneer Dr. Leta Hollingworth, who founded the first school for gifted children in the U.S., wrote about their widespread idealism and concern for fairness, and she noted that the brighter the child, the more likely their idealistic concerns. Others more recently, such as Dr. Linda Silverman and Dr. Susan Daniels, have also noted that many gifted children and adults are intense and sensitive in their idealism, and they do search for meaning. They want to do things that will make a difference, and they are concerned with issues of fairness and equity. When intensity and sensitivity are combined with idealism, as so often happens with bright children and adults, good things can happen because they can keenly see how things might be. But this can also lead to frustration, disillusionment, and unhappiness. Sometimes this prompts perfectionism; other times it results in existential depression and a sense of personal disintegration. Hopefully, the disintegration can become a positive disintegration in the sense described by the psychiatrist and psychologist Dabrowski.
3) Your subtitle is “Idealism, Bright Mind, Disillusionment and Hope”. Let’s take each one—How idealistic are gifted people and is their idealism needed in today’s world?
I think that most bright people are idealistic. At a young age, they strive to accomplish things, to master tasks, to understand things around them, and they want their environment, and world in general, to be a kinder, better, fairer place. Parents regularly tell me that their gifted children want to allow the homeless person on the street to use their spare bedroom, or how their children cry when watching the evening news stories about crime, war, and terrorism.
Of course, not all gifted children are idealists, but most are, unless they are raised in dysfunctional families where they can become disillusioned at an early age. These children learn that they cannot trust the people in the world around them. Many are exposed to harsh, inconsistent punishment, or they observe unpredictable and mean-spirited outbursts and unfair criticisms. Their idealism, even at an early age, lapses into cynicism, distrust, and depression. They do not harbor illusions of fairness or kindness or trust, nor do they have a sense of their ability to influence their world to make it better. In short, they are disillusioned.
4) How many bright minds are really out there—? I think you and I know many, many kids who are not identified, not served, and many who are “at promise “
I agree; there are many, many bright minds who are not identified or served by our schools. Also, all of us know adults who are incredibly high achievers and clearly very bright, yet as children they were underachievers or mediocre. In my view, I agree with the new position taken by the National Association for Gifted Children, which concluded that it makes much more sense to define gifted as the upper 10%, instead of the 3% to 5% that most school systems use. Additionally, this new definition (http://www.nagc.org/index2.aspx?id=6404) points out that a person can be gifted in only one or two domains, rather than being globally gifted, and this, then, would suggest that far more than just 10% of the population would be considered gifted. It was primarily for this reason that I chose to use the word “bright” rather than “gifted,” though another factor was because many very bright and accomplished people are just unwilling to consider themselves as “gifted” because of their discomfort with that term or because they think that one must be a genius in order to be considered gifted.
5) I hate to use the word, but “Disillusionment”— how disillusioned are kids today? And can you point to any one cause?
Disillusionment is not new. People, at least the thoughtful, idealistic ones, have been disillusioned for centuries. However, it does seem that disillusionment is more widespread than previously, and I suspect that it relates to several factors, but three in particular—overcrowding, population mobility, and technological enhancement of communication. As more and more people come into contact with each other, such as in cities, you become more aware of the diversity of human behaviors, not all of which are positive ones, and you quickly learn that the values and behaviors in other families are not like yours. Likewise, when families move frequently (the average U.S. family moves once every five years), you are exposed to different lifestyles and traditions. And the information explosion that has resulted from the Internet and other technologies now put us in immediate and ongoing touch with events throughout the world that provoke existential concerns and questions.
It is difficult to maintain one’s idealistic illusions in the face of such widespread exposure, and bright minds begin questioning. They wonder whether “their” way of life is the “right” way, whether their beliefs really represent the “truth,” and whether they—or anyone—can really have an effective and positive influence in solving the incredible array of life problems that they now see. Such awareness and disillusionment are key elements in an existential depression where one feels essentially alone and helpless in an absurd, arbitrary, and capricious universe.
Of course, many bright children and adults artificially narrow their vision in order to preserve and nurture the illusions that they have. It is like the poet Thomas Gray said long ago, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” There are a variety of behaviors which postpone disillusionment, most of which are probably not helpful in the long run—for example, convincing yourself that you have the special “truth” about life, or trying to control as much of your life activities as you can so that you can believe that you control your destiny, or becoming involved in trivial pursuits to keep your mind so occupied that you don’t have to think about larger issues or future events.
There are other ways to cope which are, in my opinion, more helpful ways to give your life meaning. These are ones that do not rest as heavily on illusions, or at least they emphasize how you can maintain idealistic illusions that can nurture your life and the lives of those around you.
6) Hope—President Obama, as I recall, promised hope—-sadly, I have not seen it forthcoming—Can we hope to get some hope and encouragement from our leaders or not?
Perhaps it is my own illusion, but I would like to think that many of our leaders will help us nurture our hope. I think, though, it will only occur when many of us in the general population insist on our leaders being both idealistic and hopeful, rather than negative, petty, and self-serving. I have lived long enough to have witnessed many such changes, such as in the Civil Rights in India, in the Deep South, in South Africa, and for Hispanic populations. I have seen idealistic changes in areas such as women’s rights, in workers’ rights to not be exploited, and in environmental areas. All of these were started by just a few bright, intense idealists who had a touch of missionary zeal. Perhaps they labored under illusions that they could make a difference, but interestingly they did, in fact, have major influence in ways that improved life and maintained hope.
We cannot just wait for our leaders to give us hope; we must seek it ourselves. This usually means that we will need to write our own life script so that we actively and consciously decide to feel hopeful and to maintain our idealism. It can be difficult to maintain such a life script without at least some support, however, so we will need to find others who are similarly idealistic and who can help give us energy to maintain our idealism. Through our relationships, we must provide understanding and nurturance to others so that we, and others around us, do not feel alone and helpless in a world that seems so paradoxical, arbitrary, and even absurd. We can help nurture their idealism, and indeed we must if the world is to become a better place.
7) What are some existential concerns of gifted people?
The existential concerns for all people are fundamentally the same, and four are the most common: (1) we will all die; death is inevitable and is the opposite of existence as we know it, (2) we are free to live our life in any way we choose, and we are the ones who must provide structure to our life, (3) we are fundamentally alone; no one will ever really know us, and we will never completely know anyone else, and (4) we must decide whether life is arbitrary and has no absolute essential meaning other than what we choose to give it, and come to grips with whether the life values we choose are an illusion with which we can be comfortable.
Related to this are the “three truths” from the philosopher Schopenhauer: (1) your material possessions are temporary, transient, and unable to provide lasting comfort, (2) what you represent in the eyes of others is as ephemeral as your material possessions, since the opinions of others may change at any time, and (3) what you are, or choose to be, is the only thing that truly matters.
These existential concerns are ones that are very uncomfortable to think about, and that is why most people avoid thinking about them for very long. Of course, traumatic events such as death of a loved one or loss of previous possessions will force us to think about these existential concerns and the transient nature of our lives, though usually we then try to put such thoughts out of mind pretty quickly because they remind us of how powerless we are to truly control our destiny, the arbitrariness of life, and the temporary nature of our existence. Bright minds, however, particularly those who are trying to be honest with themselves, find that they have to continue to think about these existential concerns, despite the discomfort, at least from time to time. Once your ring the bell of existential awareness, you cannot unring it. You can’t get cured of it, but you can learn to manage it and perhaps even make it work for you in your life.
8) Hope, happiness and contentment- are they out there in the U.S. or do we have to go to Denmark or Australia to find this?
We each have to construct our own hope, happiness, and contentment, and hopefully we can do this in thoughtful ways. There is a relatively new body of research called the Happiness studies, which is an offshoot of the Positive Psychology movement, and I recommend that people look at these studies. As your question suggests, there are some countries in the world where people are more contented, hopeful, and happy, and I have tried to incorporate key parts of that research in my book.
9) Where can interested people get a copy of this exceptional book?
Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope is now available at local bookstores as well as through Internet sellers, and it can also be purchased directly from the publisher at www.greatpotentialpress.com.