Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why You are Gifted, Part II

When I was in college, I made two very important decisions. First, I decided that I wanted to make good grades. I had been an underachiever for all of my life. At my high school graduation everyone was wearing ropes and medals except me. I was friends with the smart kids, but I did not share in their academic prowess. After my first year of college, I found myself watching the “pomp and circumstance” of a college graduation and I decided that I intended to graduate with honors.

The second decision I made was that my ability to be successful in college would hinge directly on the effort I invested. As my professor and renowned author Willard Tate said: “You cannot have everything you want, but you can have anything you want, you just have to be willing to pay the price.” I decided that I was willing to pay the price to get the grades I desired.

Research suggests that around the time of adolescence, our view of ability changes. Children seem to view ability as the result of a learning experience. Therefore, if a child puts effort into something, he or she will feel good about the resulting increase in ability. After the change occurs, putting effort into something is seen as an indicator of lacking ability. For example, on exam day no one wants to be the last person to turn in his or her test. The extra time we spend on that test suggests to us that we do not have the same ability as the other students, therefore we have to invest more effort and should feel inferior.

In reality, most scientific evidence suggests that effort expended is likely a prerequisite for ability.  The idea seems simple, but it is very countercultural in American society. If you really let this idea sink in, it is quite a game-changer. It was for me. Suddenly new things become possible. You can stop envying others and realize that you can achieve if you want it bad enough.

When it comes to loving God with your strength, you may not necessarily have to spend a lot of time doing strengths inventories and in spiritual reflection. May be it would be better to simply treat as our strengths those aspects of life that we enjoy and in which we have invested a large amount of effort to achieve some level of mastery. Such strengths may not be included in a Bible verse or a spiritual gifts inventory, but I believe God can still use them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why You are Gifted, Part I

What does it mean to be gifted? The word itself suggests being given something. However, in the academic world, it is a label imposed upon those whose academic achievement seems to indicate intellectual superiority to one’s peers. I was included in a school “honors” program for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school. Many students are inducted into such programs in early elementary school.

The overall idea behind these programs is that these high functioning students need higher levels of intellectual stimulation in order to continue to grow. Without a higher level of stimulation, the logic is that we run the risk of stunting the students’ growth or increasing behavior problems related to boredom. The unfortunate implied message to the students is that some students have been endowed by genetics as superior. It is often perceived that genetics is the giver of the gift.

As an educational researcher and professional, I have found that there is much more to the puzzle of being “gifted” than genetic endowment. Although there is a requisite level of genetic endowment, the genetic piece is more about the absence of genetic abnormalities. The biggest pieces of the puzzle are outside of genetics. Factors such as poverty, family situation, parenting styles, and teachers have a huge impact on a students’ level of achievement.

So what does this have to do with the Shema and loving God with your strength? The implication is that your strength is not from you. Even the genetic gifts you have would not be useful without other factors allowing them to be utilized. Any strength that you have has been gifted to you from God, who is the creator of all things. If we understand that God has given our strength to us through a combination of genetics and life circumstances, then the next step is to return that strength in his service. To be continued…

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Getting Engaged

As an aspiring academic, a good portion of what I do happens between my ears. I have thought before that if I were to have a head injury, I would have to get into a different field. I could go lose other aspects of functioning and still be fine. If I could not think, I could not function in this environment. That being said, I do not think critically about everything. I think such a lifestyle would drive one to pure madness. Some music I hear and like, for no particular reason at all. Sometimes I like to watch television or movies and just enjoy the ride. I might see intellectual elements or messages in music or stories, but I usually think about them after I have enjoyed being swept away by a compelling story, or a beat that makes me want to cut a rug. Different things engage my mind and emotions differently.

In the original Shema in Deuteronomy 6:5 as we read it in English, there is no mention of the word “mind.” When Jesus quotes it in Mark 12:29, the mind is included. This always confused me because the song we used to sing based on this verse was different from the original scripture. Recently I learned the reason behind this discrepancy. It appears that the Hebrews did not have a word for the independent concept of “mind.” In their language, the word “Lev,” (which is translated as “heart” in Deuteronomy 6:5) included the both the concept of emotion and reasoning. It seems like Jesus included the Greek word “Dianoia” (which means mind) because the Greeks did see the concepts as separate. I think it is interesting that science has subsequently found the Hebrew was closer to being right than the supposedly intellectual Greek.

Reason and emotion are inextricably linked and housed mostly in between your ears. The legal system may think its decisions are based on evidence, but none of this evidence exists in an emotionless vacuum. It seems to me that we have an easy time putting reason on our emotions, but quite a hard time putting emotion to our reasoning.

That being said, it seems to me that many Christians would have us love God only with our emotional connections, not our minds. They might even implicate erroneously (in my opinion) that our understanding of God and understanding anything about God should not be attempted. Conversely, others seem to believe that we should seek God solely as an intellectual pursuit. If we know the right things, then we will act right and be loved by God. Both sides involve engaging different systems unequally.

Given that emotion and reasoning are so closely allied, it appears there must be a third option. This option involves understanding and emotions simultaneously engaged to love God and seek all things that are good in this world and the next. This is my goal and I intend to employ my reasoning and emotions in the pursuit. It is time to get engaged. (my apologies to those who thought the title meant I was getting married).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Indulging the Nephesh

A couple of months ago I decided that I wanted to resume the practice of commuting by bicycle. I enjoy getting the exercise and foregoing the stress of morning traffic. The ride to campus is really nice because it is mostly downhill and covers some of the prettiest parts of Austin. I get to class feeling energized and connected with the world around me. The ride back to my apartment (obviously) covers the same route, but in a much less pleasant uphill battle.

Before the recent considerable reduction in temperature, this ride was very taxing. I arrived home with an empty camelbak whose contents appeared to have been directly transferred to the rest of my body. It would take quite a while for me to stop sweating and feel normal again. After working so hard, my flesh needed nourishment. I drank a lot of water and ate whatever I could find.

It seems that our bodies have a way of directing our desires to what it needs. Hormones in the endocrine system seem to communicate with our brains in influencing what we consume. Human needs for touch and interaction may work in similar ways. The opposite also seems to occur, in which our psychological state may hinder us from desiring that which is essential. The former process is usually healthier than the latter. Scientists have called these processes “drives.”

In the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5), Moses told the Israelites to love God with all of their “nephesh,” which is translated in English as “Soul.” According to what I have read, the word “Soul” does not quite seem to cover the true meaning of Nephesh. Some say it means “life” or “flesh,” others say it means “throat.” Looking at all of these definitions, it seems to me that nephesh is the seat of our physical and spiritual drives.

Therefore, I think God is saying that we also have an internal drive that seeks to know him. The human body is not satisfied without its creator (see Psalm 63). The incredibly large percentage of Americans (92% according to a 2007 study done by Pew Research) who believe in God testifies to this truth.

I wonder how often we let our other drives snuff out our drive for God. I think our collective nephesh is like a displaced pine tree in West Texas, or a sweaty bicycle rider, longing for nourishment. When will we give in and indulge that for which we were designed? How long can we run from our own nephesh?