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Learning Disability & the Dark Night of the Soul: Accepting, Overcoming, Revisioning

by Carson T. Clark on May 12, 2011

*The alternative title of this post is “My Completion of the Canterbury Trail: My Journey (Part III-i).” It’s picking up a personal journey series from this past September.

Back in Fall ’08 I was taking French for my history major. The first three weeks I poured myself into the material but was unable to learn even basic things like pronunciation of letters or the days of the week. A lot of people have difficulty with languages, but this was way more serious. No matter how intensely or long I studied, nothing stuck. Something was wrong.

I first talked to the professor, who insisted that I simply needed to spend more time studying despite the countless hours I told him I was already investing. As the frustration mounted I became desperate. Finally I went to the college’s learning support services. The lady there told me she thought I had ADHD. This just ticked me off. I remembering thinking, ‘If there’s on person in this whole country who doesn’t have ADHD, that person is me. You cannot be serious.’ The stress deepened.

Weeks later and a solid third of the way into the semester I walked into the academic dean’s office. She knew me already and asked what she could do for me. I burst into tears, explaining what was going on. With her background in education, she suspected that I might be a “twice-exceptional learner,” meaning a person who’s simultaneously classified as “learning disabled” and “gifted.” This proved to be the key that unlocked a life-long mystery, and wrecked my career aspirations.

An appointment was made with a psychiatrist at the University of Georgia. Soon after a packet came in the mail asking me to prepare information from my background. In the process I began to reinterpret my entire educational experience. Suddenly it dawned on me that, ya know, it’s weird that I was always one of the best students in the class yet was consistently the slowest test-taker. It’s not normal that I had such difficulty memorizing dates, but often knew the overall narrative better than most my history teachers. Stuff like that began to stick out.

I called my mom and dad. Apparently quite a few teachers had expressed concern over the years, but my mom, quite understandably, thought they were making a mountain out of a molehill since I was consistently at or near the top of my class. Upon hearing this, my dad got upset. That information had never been relayed to him, which was a painful sting since he had virtually the exact same experience.

Here was a guy who was valedictorian of a  large high school yet only got a 16 on his ACT (36-point scale). Just like me, people scoffed when he mustered up the courage to admit his problem. They assumed he wasn’t working hard or had challenges learning just like everyone else. Just like me, they dismissed him with the rational that just because you’re not a genius doesn’t mean there’s something broken in your head. Our experiences were parallel even down to basketball coaches being mad that we didn’t learn the plays quick enough. This validated my sense that there was definitely something wrong; there was something I’d inherited.

Sure enough, the tests confirmed what Dr. Bellefeuille had suspected. I was diagnosed as a “twice-exceptional learner,” having areas of great gifting and others of profound disability. On hearing about this my crotchety uncle dubbed me a “pseudo-idiot-savant.” It’s a slightly disturbing visual, but hilarious and true nevertheless.

I have five areas of disability:

  1. Processing Speed: If the human brain is a computer, then mine doesn’t have enough RAM. I think well, but very slowly. As an aside, this is why I don’t like puns, jokes with punchlines, or formal debates. It’s also why my reading rate is approximately 40% of that of my peers. Reading is extraordinarily taxing on my brain.
  2. Phonological Awareness: The green, amphibian creature known as a “frog” is spelled f (fu), r (ru), o (ah), g (gu) in English. When a literate English speaker reads the four letters f-r-o-g in isolation from left to right, he or she mentally or audibly hears the word and thus understand its meaning. So letters form words, words forms sentences, and sentences form paragraphs. It all seems so simple, right? Minor problem: I can’t do that (or I couldn’t until last year when I began retraining my brain). This is why I’d be the world’s worst Wheel of Fortune contestant and loathed those word scrambles back in elementary school.
  3. Rapid Naming: During the testing they’d do stuff like telling me to list animals starting with the letter “g” as fast as possible. Most people will immediately spit out, “Goat, gorilla, goose, giraffe…” whereas I slowly say, “Uhhhh, well, goat… and, uh, gorilla… crap, what’s the name? Ummm, oh, goose!… and, hmmm, giraffe…” It’s linked to the processing speed, but is specific to recalling information. Alex Trebek would hate me.
  4. Listening Comprehension: Clearly I’m capable of having a good conversation, so it’s not just a matter of listening. Rather, it’s listening to complex sets of instructions. Driving instructions over the phone, for example. I’ve got to see ‘em written or I’m hosed.
  5. Verbal Learning: I have trouble acquiring and retaining orally presented information… which is why I used to think sermons were from the devil ;). There are a few preachers I’ve found who I love, but it’s the standard way homiletics are taught these days that I so dislike. I can’t stand incoherent, rambling sermons that are supposedly “conversational” nor three-point/acronym sermons that require on-the-spot rote memorization. Written sermons are my friend.

Noting that it’s dang near impossible to be intellectually proud when you’re also severely impaired, my dilemma is this: I can run with absolutely anyone in terms of sheer thought processes, but my mental quickness and rote memorization in particular aren’t up to par. I excel at comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and creative thought but royally suck at fulfilling certain basic requirements like assigned reading and language acquisition.

I came away from the diagnosis with three intense realizations. First, my strength areas were so strong that for 24 years I unknowingly concealed my learning disability from not only my parents, teachers, and professors, but also from myself. Second, I face what the psychiatrist described as the “perfect storm against learning foreign languages.” Third, all my academic hopes and dreams began to flicker. In the subsequent two and a half years I’ve been on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster concerning my academic aspirations with the language problem in particular being the source of much consternation.

Every major field I’ve been interested in studying–history, theology, church-state studies, political science, etc.–requires not one but two foreign languages. This is especially the case at the PhD level. I confess that I’ve often felt like God is a cosmic sadist. On numerous occasions I’ve prayed, “Seriously, what the hell?? Why give me a passion without the ability to accomplish it?!?” Typical of my temperament, my gut response was to get fiercely competitive. It became a challenge to defeat. What I’ve experienced, however, is that the greater I’ve dialed in the more insufferable the failure and the darker the subsequent night of the soul.

I was raised believing in the American Dream and Republican work ethic. Family and society taught me that, with enough hard work and determination, I can accomplish anything. That’s why it pains me so much to finally concede that I don’t have it within me to beat this thing. The truth I’m finally facing is that not all obstacles can be overcome.

Ray Charles was a blind recording artist. Jim Abbott was a one-handed baseball player. Their lives are truly amazing and inspirational, but Ray couldn’t have been a pitcher and Jim couldn’t be a pianist. The fact of the matter is that both worked within their means. That’s what I’m learning to do. Every fiber of my being is shamed by this, so I’m begging the Spirit to provide comfort, to help me know I’m not a failure.

Could God heal my brain? Absolutely. I remain certain of that. Yet after much prayer all I can say is that such a miraculous intervention doesn’t seem to be His will. Thus my focus shifts to Philip Yancey’s observation that, when faced with hardship, the ultimate question for biblical characters like Job, David, and Paul seems not to have been “Why?” but “What now?” God seems to cherish this commitment of simple trust amidst trying circumstances and a lack of understanding. That’s what I’m imperfectly striving toward.

Finding healing, grace, and direction through the Spirit has been an arduous process. It has only been over the past month that I’ve been truly coming to grips with both my gifts and limitations. Rather than killing myself trying to overcome a weakness–trying to do something my brain is incapable of–I’ve decided to focus my time and energy on maximizing my strengths. Like the aforementioned musician and athlete, I’m an aspiring academic who’s learning to live within my means to the fullest possible extent.

The cold, hard fact is that I can’t get a PhD or even a MDiv like I wanted. Even though I can more than keep up mentally with any MDiv or PhD student I’ve ever met, I can never be a full-time scholar like I dreamed. In accepting that, I’ve experienced a strange peace. It has become clear that God’s will is that I split my career between ministry and academia.

I’m not giving up on my dreams completely, but I am revisioning them significantly. My new aim is two-fold:

  1. I hope to be a bridge figure between the church and academia. That is, one who has a foot firmly in each and helps facilitate communication between the two. I aspire to write technical works like a Mark Noll and devotional works like a Philip Yancey. I hope to inspire those in the ivory towers to be intentional to help those back in the pews as well as inspire those in the pews to respect and value those in the ivory towers. This mutual condescending antagonism between the two needs to be torn down. That’s a tall order and no doubt is beyond my ability, but Lord willing I can at least make a noticeable difference.
  2. I sense that my calling is to plant an Anglican house church with a L’Abri-like ministry–probably in a university town–aimed at reaching those non-Christians who struggle to accept Jesus primarily for reasons of intellectual honesty and sincere Christians who struggle with angst, doubt, and unanswered questions. The reality is that, through no fault of anyone, most American churches aren’t equipped to reach an individual who asks something like, “I’m struggling to have faith because I’ve been studying Ancient Near Eastern religions and I can’t help but note the creepy parallels between Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Could you help me with this?” Such hurting persons have no where to go. The tragedy is that they usually have to shut down their minds to stay within a local church or leave said church to find their answers. I feel led to plant a church that exhorts people to worship God with their minds and transparently work out their faith with fear and trembling. This church will be something of a hospital for those who’ve been wounded by the institutional church, a rehab center for their faith, and a gym to stay fit after their recovery. It will disciple people in a holistic worshiping lifestyle such that heart, mind, soul, and strength are all being drawn as a centripetal force toward one another till they become inseparable. At this church, the rigorous pursuit of truth will be moored in love, humility, grace, compassion, and civility as well as experienced in community. And it will also express its worship through acts of mercy, cultural creation, and the like.

Toward these ends I’m looking at MA programs in Christian Thought that don’t require languages. Hopefully I’ll find one that will fit my main interests of history, theology, cultural studies and political science with a bit of dabbling in philosophy, psychology, and literature. As for the reading rate problem, I’ll probably just have to take one class at a time and stretch the program out while pastoring a church.

All that having been said, I could use some assistance in two areas. First, can y’all recommend some solid Christian Thought programs that definitively don’t require foreign languages and hopefully don’t require GRE scores? I’d be most grateful. Second, I need to build a “launch team” to help plant this church. Anyone interested?

  • http://craigbenno1.wordpress.com Craig Benno

    Carson, your post strikes a cord with me. In October 2007 I collapsed and was hospitalised for a number of months with Viral Encephalitis . This resulted in partial amnesia – something I still find there are events which I have totally forgotten and can’t remember when they are brought up.

    I too have problems learning languages as I can’t retain the list structure and knowledge of the grammar. When I started Greek in 2009 I found that all my working knowledge of grammar had been wiped out – even today I have struggles with verbs, 1st, 2nd, 3rd person etc.

    Yet, I’m not so sure that I can blame it all on the virus attack. I have always been a bookworm and enjoy reading. My comprehension skills are high – yet I always confused my aunt who is a school teacher as to why my grammar / spelling was so poor.

    In reading through your post I was mentally ticking off all the boxes and thinking that that seriously sounds like myself.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Craig,

      Please forgive my delay in replying…

      Yeah, with as psychologically aware as we now are as a society, it’s amazing that the LD thing remains so foreign to people’s conceptions. I suppose it’s because a) no one wants to be thought of as “disabled” and b) unlike so many other disabilities it’s not something you can see. As I said in my post, I’ve experienced a great deal of not only turmoil but also peace in figuring this out. I’m glad this post was encouraging to you.

  • http://www.mattbredmond.blogspot.com Matthew Redmond

    Carson,

    Thank you for this piece. I not only appreciate it as one who has had similar issues but as one who has a daughter who has similar things to deal with.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Matthew. It sounded like you’ve found encouragement in my words. That lifts my heart.

  • http://jmsmith.org James-Michael Smith

    Gordon-Conwell has some MA tracks in Christian Thought which don’t require languages, I believe. It’s my alma mater, so I’m biased, but the Charlotte campus is phenomenal for someone looking to do what you’re talking about, I believe. Check into it.

    Great post, I’m sharing it now!

    And if Disciple Dojo can be of any help to you as you venture forth, my resources are geared perfectly toward what you’re wanting to accomplish as far as being a bridge between the two worlds of church and academia…it’s a passion I share as well!

    Blessings,
    JM

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Hey, thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been eying Gor-Con for a while. I’ll take a more thorough look… As for your resources, perhaps you can help. I’ll give it more thought and keep you in mind. The first thing on my brain is that I’m primarily looking for people at this point. Through your website, do you come across people who may be interested in this sort of thing?

  • Rana

    excellent post. wow. twice exceptional. in the past 7 years i’ve discovered my educational preference and looking back it totally gels with my experiences in school/ college/ university.

    we’re struggling to figure out what is up with my very intelligent and very high maintenance 5 yr old, i’ve gone from thinking she has atypical autism to thinking she’s gifted/ talented.

    my husband has a PhD in Engineering, he’s a university professor and he has a learning disability, but he can’t remember the name of it, lol. i wish i knew what he had and i’ve looked into getting my daughter’s IQ tested by a child psychologist. can you give more details on how they diagnosed you? what tests were used? what else?

    thank you!

    btw, the church you’re describing you want to plant sounds a lot like the church we attend. the pastor started out in NYC under Tim Keller and then was a part of the City Church in San Francisco/ Berkeley i believe. he’s such a blessing.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Glad I could be an encouragement :)

      What’s the name of your church plant? Is there a website? I’d love to check ‘er out.

  • Ian Sansot

    I glanced at “Dark Night of the Soul” and was hoping for Batman. Dur.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’d be any help, dude. I have zero knowledge of programs to take and I don’t seem to be in a place in my life to tangibly help as a part of the launch team. That said, it doesn’t mean I won’t be on board in the future. Definitely keep me in the loop, though.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Ian,

      Congratulations on your recent graduation.

      I could use me a comic book, nerd lawyer. What’s necessary for a lawyer to get licensed in another state? … Hey, a guy can dream, right?

  • James Gotta

    Carson–
    Thank you for this post; it helped me cement some of our earlier conversations about your struggles and aspirations. Like I told you over the phone, your ideas for a church really strike a chord with me. Do you have anything written that elaborates upon your church idea? I’d love to learn more about a)where your passion for an anglican house church/recovery/learning center stem from, and b)if you have further thoughts about what such a place would look like.
    I am going to write something up for you as well, because I have had similar dreams for hybrid church/recovery/learning center.
    Sincerely,
    Jimbo

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Jimbo!

      “Do you have anything written that elaborates upon your church idea?”

      Not yet, unfortunately. That’s actually a place where I could use some help. I tend to flesh my ideas out in discussion…

      “I’d love to learn more about a) where your passion for an anglican house church/recovery/learning center stem from, and b) if you have further thoughts about what such a place would look like.”

      a. Personal experience. I’m a wounded Christian who has experienced much healing through God’s sovereign grace, but there are many other maimed persons out there. Whether the struggle is physical, emotional, spiritual, or intellectual, there’s a pretty good chance I can empathize. I’ve found countless others who share those experiences and need to experience the Body of Christ in a healthy, local, tangible sense. As for the Anglican house church thing, the house church dynamic came first. I’ve liked the house church movement since my late teens, but have had reservations about the wooden liternalness with which they sought to re-institute first century norms. Many don’t seem to get the difference between descriptive and prescriptive, interpretation and application. Then I attended the University Church in Athens, GA. It was a formal house church, but was never preoccupied about being a house church. It was more a church that happened to meet in a house, if you will. As we’ve discussed, this church played a powerful role in restoring my hope for what the Church can be. Yet I had some concerns. First and foremost was its its autonomous nature. My conviction is that churches need oversight. When I committed to the Anglican tradition, it all seemed to come together in my head. Does that make sense?

      b. Hmmmm… Stream of conscious thoughts… The church section would be definitively Anglican. It’d be quasi-high church. Intimate. Rich, exegetical (probably written) sermons. Non-programmatic ethos. I’d aim for a culture of honesty and transparency, encouraging people to be honest about their doubts, questions, struggles, and the like. In-depth Sunday school classes. Sermons discussions like we talked about. Group meals after every Sunday morning service. Emphasis upon the arts and poverty outreach. The L’Abri ministry would be quite ecumenical…. Can you ask more specific questions? I’d be happy to reply.

  • Bridey

    The idea for the church sounds really great! A lot of bright students fall away from their faith or just section off faith from their academic life, and while I think a lot of individual ministers (lay and ordained) would love to help them, there’s not a real forum or airing of that sort of concern, often.

    I’m not familiar with the range of programs, but I’m at Yale and I know that YDS doesn’t require languages for the MAR, which has concentrations in both History of Christianity and in Theology, as well as a comprehensive program covering Bible-Theology-History-Ministry-Society. It is GRE-optional (I’m an admitted/joint student and I didn’t submit any test scores), and I do know people who are going / have gone part time. Plus, they have a certificate program (and, therefore, course offerings and opportunities in) chaplaincy and educational ministry, which would probably be good for someone with your call/interests. As far as the overall school, it’s ecumenical Christian and frankly rather liberal, and connected to Berkeley DS — affiliated with TEC but that means you can count on them having a few courses dedicated to Anglican history and theology.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Sounds like you resonated with my heart. I’m always glad to hear that there are other such persons out there. And, yes, I totally agree that the college age in particular is important for the intellectual development of faith, but churches tragedy neglect this. Instead they offer college students pizza and PG-13 movies to placate their minds during/after a hard semester, as though what the students need is a break rather than mental and spiritual engagement…

      Thanks for the program recommendations. I’ll check them out! :)

  • http://theoradical.net JohnO

    I was doing an MTS at Boston University last year, and you can certainly design a track in which you could avoid a foreign language. I think you’d be able to find great people up here given your desire.

    • http://carsontclark.wordpress.com Carson T. Clark

      Interesting. Very interesting. I’ll check it out…

  • Karl

    Have you looked at what is offered in Wheaton’s Christian Education MA program? I know a couple of the professors. The opportunity to study with Jerry Root by itself would be enough to make me strongly consider that program if I were in your shoes.
    http://www.wheaton.edu/cfm/faculty/root-j.html

    Also, there is Dr. Lyle Dorsett, who holds the Billy Graham chair of evangelism at Beeson. He’s an AMiA priest and a passionate Christian and scholar. I’d consider Beeson’s MA program in theological studies just to study with him.
    http://www.beesondivinity.com/lylewdorsett

  • sabrina peters

    forgive me if you’ve already explained this, but how are numbers 4 and 5 (about listening/oral communication) learning disorders? i have the same troubles, but have been well aware that i am an extremely visual learner. i haven’t equated that with disability.

    • carsontclark

      A learning disability isn’t merely not being good at a given
      cognitive activity but rather drastic impairment, especially in relation
      to one’s other areas. According to the testing, and my life
      experiences, I’m far below the average in terms of sequential listening
      comprehension and the ability to learn from oral teaching.

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