Saturday, March 21, 2009

Intelligence Powered Exclusively by Love


Martha Beck was a high achieving graduate of one of our pre-eminently advertised universities who was trying to find herself by “thrashing my way through a maze of difficult requirements toward labels and achievements that contain no joy in themselves.” She and her husband spent years trying to teach Adam (son with Down Syndrome) the alphabet in order to be able to read. She explains:
“He inherited our immense supply of magnetic refrigerator letters once the rest of us had stopped using them, but he didn’t pick up the alphabet as Katie eventually had. Because his speech was almost completely unintelligible, I had no idea whether he was even capable of grasping the idea of written symbols representing phonetic units that can be combined to make words. Written language requires several impressive cognitive leaps, and I had no idea whether Adam would ever make even one. Nevertheless, from the time he started preschool at three, we kept running Adam through the alphabet, repeating the name of each letter, along with its major sound, thousands and thousands of times in the strained voices of tourists who believe they can overcome any language barrier by sheer volume. “It didn’t work. When quizzed without prompting, Adam never recognized the letters on his own. By the time he was six I was ready t o give up. “Then one day John was holding up a plastic letter and making its sound, which happened to be “EEEEEEEEE,” when Adam suddenly perked up and said, ‘Wizbef!’ This is the way he pronounces his sister Elizabeth’s name. Naturally, John and I took this as ample cause to stay home from work and celebrate. During that day, we discovered that Adam’s learning capacity went way beyond anything we expected – as long as everything he learned related directly to someone he cared about. He had absolutely no interest in, for example, “E is for egg.” But E for Elizabeth – now that was crucial information. “In the end we all learned the alphabet this way. The symbols we had been trying to link to abstract sounds ended up as a parade of personalities: Adam first, of course, and then Billy, Caleb, Diane, Elizabeth, Francine, Grandpa … As we figured out how he learned, the landscape of our son’s mind began to reveal itself to us. Instead of rationally constructed structure of empirical observations, logical conclusions, and arbitrary symbols, Adam’s mental world seems to be more like a huge family reunion. ]It is a gathering of people, all linked by Adam’s affection into a complex universe of relationships and characteristics. In this world, Adam learns as fast as anyone I know. Long before he could reads or write even the most basic words (or so I thought), Adam cam home to tell me, in his garbled tongue, about the new boy who had just moved into his class, and who had become Adam’s friend. When I couldn’t understand his pronunciation of the boy’s name, Adam grabbed a pencil in his stubby, grubby little-boy fingers, and wrote ‘Miguel Fernando de la Hoya’ on a piece of paper – a piece of paper, needless to say, which I intend to frame. If I ever need a dose of Adam and he isn’t around, I’ll be able to look at that clumsily written name and remember what it is like to tap into an intelligence powered exclusively by love.”

Because Adam’s intelligence was powered by love, Adam saw things we don’t see while they are right in front of us – like “the divine something hidden in the ordinary” of Escriva. Adam’s mother was afraid that he might slow her down. He did. “Thank God. I was afraid Adam would slow me down, and he has. Not because he has required more care and time than a ‘normal’ boy (he is the most helpful and least demanding of my children) but because the immediacy and joy with which he lives his life make rapacious achievement, Harvard-style, look a lot like quiet desperation. Adam has slowed me down to the point where I notice what is in front of me, its mystery and beauty, instead of thrashing my way through a maze of difficult requirements toward labels and achievements that contain no joy in themselves. Adam takes his joy straight up, in purer form than most of us can handle….He is the one who taught me to appreciate rainbows – not only in the sky but also in lawn sprinklers and dish-soap bubbles and patches of oil. He is the one who stops, and makes me stop, to smell the bushes.”

No comments: