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Book review: Searching for Meaning

Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope
by James T. Webb
Great Potential Press

Searching for MeaningDr. Webb’s work has been very important in my life. The day I picked up A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children is the day that I started to learn about my children—and myself. This was the first parenting book I’d read that admitted that children are different, that families are different, and that it’s not only OK to be different—it’s OK to acknowledge that you are different. And it’s not only OK, but also necessary, to know who you and your children are if you are going to get on with the business of living fulfilling lives.

Dr. Webb’s work with gifted children necessarily led him to the next step: what happens when gifted children grow up? In common belief, giftedness = high achievement. So a gifted child is only gifted by virtue of his or her high grades, and once school is over, somehow we all become “the same.” Yes, some of us as adults are achievers, but it doesn’t matter whether we were whiz kids in school or dropouts who made it big later in life—giftedness is not supposed to matter anymore.

What Dr. Webb has noticed, however, is that the brain that makes gifted children more excitable, more prone to being misdiagnosed with disorders, highly sensitive, and socially unusual does not disappear with adulthood. It’s that same brain, but more developed, more in control. The girl that screamed when she went into a room with bright lights becomes the woman who wears tinted glasses and has found a way to avoid working in office buildings. The boy who kept being sent to the principal’s office because he couldn’t sit still when he was excited about what he was learning has become the man who paces his office and talks to himself when he’s solving a difficult problem. We didn’t suddenly stop having a different brain because we grew up; we simply learned to shape a world that fit our needs.

But that ability to shape the world has its limits. Yes, the woman who is sensitive to light can wear tinted glasses, but if she’s sensitive to violence it’s hard for her to avoid knowing about the violence in this world. The man who paces his office has control of his part of the project he’s working on, but he doesn’t have control over the exploitation of the workers who make the computers he programs. We figure out a way to cope, but sometimes coping is not enough. When you have a brain that works on overdrive, it’s not easy to turn it off at your convenience.

Searching for Meaning is not an easy book. I have to admit, it’s not a book I would have picked up while browsing in a book store. Disillusionment? Hm, maybe I should go for something lighter. Existential depression? Gotta go, I’m late for an appointment. Admitting that what made me a “smart kid” is still intrinsically part of how I interact with the world? Not likely. But despite the fact that I would have avoided this book—perhaps because I would have avoided it—I really appreciate having read it through to the end.

The book takes an analytical approach to the problem by first dissecting it. What is a gifted child? What is a gifted adult? Webb devotes ample space to questioning what makes us who we are. He then lays out the base that the rest of the book builds on: Our overexcitabilities lead us to be idealists; our idealism leads us to want to change the world; our attempts to make things better will eventually lead us to realize that there are limits to what we can do; facing our limits can sometimes lead us to question what our lives are worth.

Dr. Webb could have made this a gloomy book, indeed. However, by laying the foundation of why so many bright minds find themselves confronting disillusionment and depression, he is then able to build on this understanding to help us climb back into the light. Using the different points of view of a variety of thinkers through the ages, Dr. Webb shows ways that we can view what we’re experiencing through a new lens. He offers new ways of looking at what might seem to be a bleak landscape, and cautions us against coping mechanisms (anger, narcissism, avoidance) that become destructive even as we think we are protecting ourselves.

Finally, Dr. Webb offers us the challenge to view our idealism and sensitivity as an asset, to find coping mechanisms that improve our lives and the lives of others, and to aim for hope, happiness, and contentment in a world that desperately needs more of all three.

If you think it’s uncomfortable admitting that your child is different and has different needs, magnify that 20-fold to admit that about your adult self. Dr. Webb’s current mission is to remind us that our brains — no matter which type we ended up with — still need TLC once we move into our adult lives. Dr. Webb’s mission is to understand the needs of brains we called “gifted,” but this book takes its place in a greater striving to understand all different aspects of humanity now that we have the tools to do so.

We are all different. We do have our own needs. Dr. Webb’s brave book encourages one segment of “special needs adults” to learn more about caring for their singularly overexcitable brains.

Posted in Books, Parenting, Psychology.

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