[This post was published April 20, 2013] A few evenings ago, I had the privilege of eating dinner in the Bistro at Aspen Grove, in Littleton, Colorado (USA) with a good friend and colleague. She and I talked about the Boston Marathon, her niece who ran it this year, how my friend found out about the bombing, how her niece fared in the race, and most importantly WAS SHE SAFE? (She was.) My friend got a text from her sister that prompted her to turn on the TV. She was at home that day, and as she sat down in front of the TV with the remote in one hand, suddenly it was as if she was sitting down in front of the TV with the remote in her hand on April 20, 1999, seeing and hearing about the Columbine High School Shooting. The tragic events of today and of fourteen years ago transposed themselves and she experienced them both together. My friend was a youth pastor at the time of the Columbine shooting, and many of her youth attended Columbine High School. She had been intimately involved in helping the students and the community heal after this tragedy. As she shared memories of this with me, tears welled up within her and she moaned, “Why does it always have to be this way?!”
“Because you’re human,” I blurted out, almost without thinking. “Because that’s the way the human mind works, that’s why.” One tragedy, loss or trauma plays that ‘string’ in our mind and body, and all the other ‘strings’ tuned to that frequency vibrate along with this one while all the memories, emotions and body sensations attached to those strings come flooding back as well.
Instead of hearing the sound of the recorded soft piano music filling the Bistro, in my mind I was with my husband at a rare work-day lunch together. We sat outdoors under budding cherry trees; he munched his Sesame Chicken while I ate my Tofu Vegetables. Suddenly sirens—more than we had ever heard at one time—pierced the lovely, warm, but crisp Rocky Mountain spring air. A deep rumble shook the ground, and soon we saw a continuous stream of squad cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and soon helicopters overhead joined in. I shook as the memory overtook me, and I got lost in the memory. What was happening? Gary and I had asked each other. Something BIG had to have happened! What could be that awful for all of Jefferson County’s resources to be heading south at breakneck speed and others from Denver were heading west? Our office was south of us; even farther south was our home. Would either one still be there? We couldn’t believe it when we later heard the news. Columbine HS was sandwiched between our office and our house. Many of the victims lived in our neighborhood. The shooters lived in another development just over the hill from us.
My friend and I pulled ourselves out of our reverie and returned to the Bistro. She had been impacted so deeply by the Boston Marathon because she had a niece running in it this year, because she’s a runner herself, because it took her back to Columbine, and because she’s a CASIGY- a Creative, Acutely Aware, Super-Sensitive, Intense and Gifted woman (although she hates labels, and resists the term, she admits that she has all of these characteristics).
This unique combination of characteristics predisposes CASIGYs to react more intensely both physiologically and emotionally than do others. According to Elaine Aron, who coined the term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), HSPs are the 20% of the human race who have a greater sensitivity than the other 80%. Other research has found that gifted/highly intelligent people are typically the most sensitive of the highly sensitive, and that there is a correlation between high intelligence and sensitivity: the more intelligent you are, the more sensitive you are likely to be. (They did not find a correlation the opposite way, i.e. the more sensitive you are, the more intelligent you are). Hence, you can be super-sensitive without being super-intelligent, but if you are super-intelligent, you are highly likely also to be super-sensitive.
Returning to the present, we remembered that Saturday, April 20, 2013 is the 14th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings. As we shared our memories, I became aware that although we are similar in many ways, we dealt with the tragedy and trauma in very different ways. She was intimately involved with the victims and survivors. I wrote, made fabric art and helped my clients cope with it. And I thought a lot about the bigger, deeper issues connected to this tragedy and others like it.
I believe that the Columbine High School Shooting was a monumental event, not because it was almost in my back yard, but because it was the first in a barrage of violence perpetrated not by drug addicts, inner-city gangs, foreign terrorists, or other “expected” criminals, but by bright, “advantaged” suburban upper-middle-class American teens. And what was their motive? It appears that at least some of it was revenge against those who had excluded them from the social life of the school. The shooters were outcastes, misfits who felt they didn’t belong anywhere. They had long histories of a variety of problems—behavior problems, mental health problems, academic problems, you name it. But they were creative and smart. The more I learn about them, the more I suspect that they too, were CASIGYs: Creative, Acutely Aware, Super-Sensitive, likely Introverted, Intense, maybe Gifted Youth. The shooter in the recent theatre shootings in Aurora, Colorado was also a highly intelligent, highly creative young man who also had mental health problems.
This is enough to make all parents, teachers and leaders of creative, sensitive, and/or gifted youth shake in their boots. What can we do as parents, teachers, youth leaders, and as a community to prevent more deadly violence like this? This is a complex societal issue that is bigger than any of us, and bigger than all of us put together, so I’m not going to propose simplistic solutions. Neither am I going to throw up my hands in despair and say there is nothing we can do. In between these extremes lie creative possibilities that invite our contemplation and participation.
First, I’d like to share a link to a separate article that focuses specifically on helping Creative, Acutely Aware, Super-Sensitive, Intense, and Gifted kids and teens cope with trauma and tragedy. Click here to read this article.
Next, I’d like to consider the dilemma that many CASIGYs have, who feel like misfits that don’t belong in twenty-first century urban, extroverted societies. The CASIGY traits of Creativity, Complexity, Curiosity, Acute awareness, Super- sensitivity, Intensity, likely Introversion and possibly Giftedness set us apart in a way that often creates disconnection, alienation, discouragement and even despair, especially for the brightest among us. Some employers, parents, teachers, youth leaders and others understand that CASIGYs have great potential, and are eager to find ways to help encourage us. Others are annoyed, put off or even offended by our unique combination of abilities and vulnerabilities. We ourselves are often annoyed, put off, and yes, even offended by our differences and the difficulties these create.
Many CASIGYs are able to access our gifts and make our contributions to the world as students and adults. But far too many CASIGYs are caught in the vortex of problems that their differences create. Like Rudolph the Christmas reindeer, we are MisFits who are excluded, ostracized and eventually banished into exile. Unlike Rudolph, many of us do not return from exile, but spend far too much of our lives alienated, disenfranchised and underachieving.
Are you a CASIGY who feels like a MisFit struggling to find a place to belong and a way to make a positive, creative contribution? Or do you care about a CASIGY who feels like a MisFit—your family member, friend, student, or employee? Are you at risk to be exiled because of your CASIGY differences? As a fellow CASIGY, and a counselor and psychotherapist who has helped CASIGYs turn obstacles into stepping stones for over 30 years, I’ve helped many CASIGYs who feel like MisFits to find hope, healing and return from banishment and exile.
Do you, as a gifted person often get treated as if you have many (unfair) advantages over others? Does it burn you that those with artistic, athletic or other abilities do not necessarily live under this stigma but you often feel like a MisFit? Most kids want to be an athlete or at least an actor or dancer, not a super-sensitive or a smart kid. And then what if you’re all of the above? That can make you even more of a MisFit!
What do you do when high intelligence combines with sensitivity/overexcitability, intensity, complexity, learning disabilities and asynchronous development so what what emerges is known as being Twice Exceptional, (AKA 2E) or Multiple Exceptionalities? This complex combination can create even greater inner dissonance and greater vulnerability resulting in a sense of inferiority, a feeling of inadequacy, a conclusion of defectiveness, leading to social isolation, alienation, and a sense of banishment or exile, which can deteriorate into deep discouragement. Where does a CASIGY fit in modern day society? Many of us don’t quite know, and too many of us struggle with this much of our lives. No matter where we are, we don’t quite feel at home, and often don’t feel understood, accepted or valued. More than one CASIGY has said to me, “I feel like an alien from another planet.”
How can one get help with these CASIGY issues? What can kids, teens and adults do who feel inferior, inadequate, even defective and who are experiencing isolation, alienation, and a sense of being in exile? When it comes to deeply personal and yet vastly universal and even archetypal issues such as these, myth and fairy tale often have deep wisdom and do much to show us the way.
Our mascot for this metaphorical journey is Rudolph, the Christmas Reindeer. His story shows
how to navigate the territory of exile,
- how to heal from the hurts of knowing we are different, of being excluded, ostracized and sent away,
- how to transform banishment into blessing,
- how to dig deep enough under the rubble of banishment and exile to reveal our true gifts–
- in essence, how to find the magic in being a misfit.
Do you remember Rudolph? He had a red nose when everyone else had a black one. Rudolph was made fun of, criticized, excluded, ostracized and finally banished to the Land of MisFit Toys. He was finally redeemed when his red nose, the very characteristic that caused him all the trouble in the first place, solved a problem for the whole community. That community of course included the very ones who had made fun of him, criticized him, excluded him, ostracized him and finally banished him to the Land of MisFit Toys.
Having a red nose; that is, being significantly different than the majority of the population, often causes trouble that can lead to being labeled as a MisFit. When the teacher says, “Anyone but Susan may answer this next question,” or when Joe gets shoved around at recess or in the hall between classes because the other boys are jealous of his quick answers in class, (and because he doesn’t have the interpersonal or physical prowess or confidence that they do), they are like Rudolph with his red nose. When coworkers are angry at what a CASIGY considers a job well done and the others consider going “over the top” to get the boss’s attention or approval, we are like Rudolph with his red nose. When we have difficulty tending to dull, meaningless, repetitive tasks, and others judge or criticize us, call us lazy or irresponsible, we are like Rudolph with his red nose.
Rudolph was finally exiled because of his great difference and his subsequent inability to conform to the norms of the majority. Many CASIGYs have told me that they feel like they have lived their whole lives in exile. Indeed, many of us have. We humans typically draw conclusions about the world and what it is like; about ourselves in relation to the world; and where we fit in the scheme of things; somewhere between the age of three and five. For CASIGYs, this often happens even sooner. It’s a four year old who draws the map of the world that we follow for the rest of our lives. If by the age of four, we feel like a misfit, then we may not know how to be anything but a misfit for the rest of our lives, unless we are willing later to come back and excavate and redraw these maps.
By the age of two, three or four, when we are able to look around us and recognize that there is nobody in our group or neighborhood who is like us, we often respond by asking, “What’s wrong with me?” This presupposes that there is something wrong with us. But just because we are different from the majority does not imply that we are inferior, defective or deficient. It just means that we are different.
Being in exile creates an opportunity for inner transformation instead of the outer conformity towards which many CASIGYs feel great pressure. We don’t have control over how others define us, but we can have control over how we see ourselves. When we no longer define ourselves as inferior, defective or deficient, it won’t matter so much what others think of us. Changing our inner definition and attitude toward ourselves also opens the way for us to recognize and act on opportunity when it comes. Rudolph could have said, “Oh no, I can’t do that!” when Santa invited him to come lead his sleigh through the night. Maybe he said it in the beginning, but he was able to shift his own inner attitude toward himself, to take the risk and accept the opportunity when it came. Rudolph was also able to overcome a natural desire to punish those who had ostracized, excluded and banished him, so that he was willing to use his red nose to save Christmas day for everyone. He was willing to forgive enough to use his uniqueness to make a constructive, creative contribution to the world, in spite of how he had been hurt.
If Rudolph had been a CASIGY, he would likely have also had to release his idealistic expectation of how he should have been treated in order to respond to Santa’s invitation. We CASIGYs often tend to hold onto our illusions and expectations of perfection in others and in ourselves, long after they no longer serve us. Rudolph shows us that letting go of perfectionism has great rewards.
Few CASIGYs have the chance to have someone else invite us out of exile and return to our communities. We have to do this for ourselves. It is often the suffering of our exile that can open us up to what previously had been hidden or camouflaged, and to recognize our gifts. Our creativity can help us be aware of possibilities that no one else sees. Our curiosity and lead us to look where no one else does. Our complexity can help us notice facets of issues that others have ignored, and find deeper more effective ways to solve the complex problems of our world. Our sensitivity can help us notice problems when they are smaller and before they get so big they are out of control, or think of solutions that no one else is aware of. Our intensity can help us communicate with others, or pay attention to problems that others can ignore, but we cannot due to our sensitivity and intensity. Our intelligence can help us put things together in ways no one else ever thought of. Our differences as CASIGYs can help us capitalize on our differences and create a difference in our world. So Rudolph’s victory shows CASIGYs everywhere how to find the magic in being a misfit. He shows us how to pull together our coping, healing, and transformation and make a constructive, creative contribution in the world. The more of us who do this for ourselves, and the more we help other CAISGYs to do this also, the less CASIGYs will be left in exile and despair, and the less tragedy there will be to overcome.
So today, I invite you to remember Columbine with me. Let’s remember Columbine, Boston, and Platte Canyon, and all the other communities torn apart by violence. Today, let’s embrace the families of the victims. Today, let’s embrace the families of the perpetrators. Let’s come together as a community that owns its own shadow and does not project its own inner evil on others. For the shooters and bombers often start out as the most sensitive among us and so are even more vulnerable to picking up the psychic material that others cannot or will not carry for themselves. Carl Jung said that World War II could have been prevented if enough people had owned their own shadow, and had carried it themselves instead of projecting it onto others. Today, let us all carry our own goodness and badness, our own imperfections, our own needs, desires and emotions, and yes, our own evil, so that there is nothing floating around in the air for the super-sensitive to feel that they must carry and act out for all of society. Today, Let us remember Columbine.