Note: This article is an excerpt from a larger research project on American poet, Emily Dickinson. The purpose of this text is to share questions on some of the main traits of this incandescent personality and connect it to certain typical characteristics of profoundly gifted individuals.
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10th, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Daughter of a prominent local lawyer, she was second child of the family with an older brother, and a younger sister who remained close to her all through her life. Dickinson was a highly unusual personality, and less than a dozen of her nearly 1800 poems were published during her lifetime. Contemplating life, from the familial home and life’s outskirts, she is a uniquely gifted poet, an innovator of the rhymes and the language.
How did Emily Dickinson’s Profound Giftedness play out in her life, and, how could we support young Emily if she was to be born in this day an age?
If you are acquainted with Dickinson’s poetry and writing, you may have been profoundly touched by her accuracy and precision. A mix of sharp intensity and intellectual condensation, leaving its readers with a sensation of mental excitement and electrifying restlesness. Her novel use of punctuation also adds to the experience, allowing us to travel with her through the unusual landscapes of her vision.
Biographers argue about the epithets that have been used to describe her – ‘hermit’, ‘reclusive’ – and that keep following her in mainstream psyche. Without wanting to add to the controversy, I would like to quote Emily on unmarried life, as it may give us clues concerning her personality and her ideas about life: “How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same sweet flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun.”
With these words, Emily points to the reality of many Highly Gifted Individuals characterized by: their originality, their zest for life, their childlike sense of wonder, their depth, and their independence bordering with rebellion. Emily was a trail-blazer with her words, and she so magnificently managed to express her innermost impressions with them that we do have a clear picture of who she was, and her character as a person. Her poetry is mysterious, often enigmatic, but the portrait of an extremely intense, profound and sensitive person emerges.
“They thought it queer I didn’t rise— I thought a lie would be queerer.»
Emily’s powerful intellect may well have been the a source of personal delight, as well as dismay. Indeed, it is easy to imagine how she may have alienated herself from many, including the Establishment, with her sharp tongue, her direct, irrevocable and brilliant style. Discarding social etiquette that she abhorred, she seemed to revel in a parallel world where she believed her words would be clearly understood and taken for what she intended them to be: omens, invitations to see beyond the mundane. We may wonder how the prominent literary figure, Mr. Higginson, perceived those introductory lines from Miss Dickinson?
« Mr. Higginson,
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—
Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—
If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—
I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is it’s own pawn—»
Transposing these lines into our world, we can imagine why Mr.Higginson, however piqued with curiosity, felt disturbed and decided to dismiss the work of Dickinson – at first.
It must have been painfully difficult for Emily to understand let alone conform, with the average conception of life, held by most people. Being such an ardent soul and fierce woman, she makes the impression of a Virginal Maiden, committed to defend a vision of life as spiritual experience filled with wonder and beauty, a spiritual journey that should be devoid of anything petty. There is no doubt that she saw and experienced life as such, and she can occasionally come across as one-sided, extremist even in service of this high ideal. Far from me, the intent to judge her, instead, I believe her intensity & idealism help explain how she grew as a quiet reactionary – her separateness, as a sign that she could not find in the outer world what she so strongly longed for.
Owing to their intensity, their ability to see through things, to see flaws and their challenge in compromising, many Highly Gifted Individuals are prone to follow the path of outcasts – when not taught how to channel their energy constructively. They may speak without filter and confront others with their shortcomings, often hinting at aspects those people would not want to see, they can alienate themselves and end up being rejected for their frankness, their accuracy, their honesty. That Emily had others’ best interest at heart – most of the time – also is clear, and that she faced misunderstanding, lack of reciprocity in fervor and passion can explain the loneliness that she felt more and more acutely as years passed by.
This poem is heart-wrenching, frightening revealing inner truths that the bareness of the poem contribute to express:
It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness —
I’m so accustomed to my Fate —
Perhaps the Other — Peace —
Would interrupt the Dark —
And crowd the little Room —
Too scant — by Cubits — to contain
The Sacrament — of Him —
I am not used to Hope —
It might intrude upon —
Its sweet parade — blaspheme the place —
Ordained to Suffering —
It might be easier
To fail — with Land in Sight —
Than gain — My Blue Peninsula —
To perish — of Delight —
It would have been impossible to morally sustain such high standards of perfection, of purity and truth. Her poems were companions, but, how could she keep on with real life – when no one could really share her consuming intensity? One cannot under-estimate the pain and resulting bitterness that exceptional individuals can experience, and that can manifest through isolation, causticity, aggressivity – an apparence of being in revolution against the entire world. When misinterpreted, those behaviours can further aggravate the vicious circle within which the individual is trapped, and push her to eventually give up completely. For if no one can understand her, what point is there in keeping up?
I also wish to draw attention to the possibility of depression, and suicide, for Highly Talented Individuals. When the mind is constantly reacting after another idea, needing to learn new knowledge, when the emotions are so intense that almost anything can create waves of sensations, when a person hardly ever encounters another who can relate with them and with whom they can feel comfortable to be themselves, when they struggle to find meaning in life and feel their idealism is of no use to a world that has trouble receiving thier input, when they lack strategies to successfully navigate life and sustain healthy relationships, then, they are at risk to grow in disillusionment and lose hope in existence.
The story of Emily Dickinson encourages me to reflect on the specific vulnerabilities of those who are Profoundly Gifted. I believe we can draw lessons from such examples of extraordinary lives, and consider how we can nurture Profoundly Gifted Children’s growth holistically in today’s world – taking into account the mental, the emotional, the spiritual, and the social aspects. The following questions can nourish your parenting approach, and draw attention to those grey areas that can become black holes later in life, if left abandoned:
How can you help your child to develop an inner core of peace that is so strong that he is not undermined by others’ reactions?
How can you help your child learn to follow her unusual views while being able to identify when she is being unreasonable in her thinking and attitudes? (In the situation of Emily Dickinson, had she been taught to better understand her demanding nature and arenas where it was of no help to be so rigid, she may not have resorted to limit her life to her closest family circle?)
How do you help your child manage her intensity, and her gifts so that she is not at their effect?
How do you help the Profoundly Gifted Child apprehend the full spectrum of his emotions, and the darkness that can come with them?
How can you help her consciously find balance points in everyday life to balance her rich, powerful and exhilarating inner life, that may lead her far from her contemporaries’ interests?
How can you help him manage to develop acceptance even in those who are most alien to him, and who inspire the strongest reactions in him?
How can your child’s beautiful ideas be of service to the world and society? How can he express them in ways that others can hear them? How can his gifts be a source of joy for himself and others in his life?
What is the definition of a happy and meaningful life for a Profoundly Gifted Individual?
However unique, mysterious and unconventional, Emily Dickinson’s life and poems can help us grasp certain typical fragilities of the Profoundly Gifted. And, while it is certainly true that not all will bloom to become such genius, accomplished, decisive figures, opening ways to future generations of poets, scientists, and innovators, striving to help these individuals find balance within the microcosm that their own world represents appears to be a worthwhile and necessary task.
Your reactions will be read with great interest.
Marion Franc offers different services to support intuitive and talented children, teenagers, and their parents work with their child’s sensitivities and abilities. She works with families in Paris, and via phone/skype – in English, French and Spanish. To explore working together, please send an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Caring for the Gifted Child