Learning Disability & the Dark Night of the Soul: Accepting, Overcoming, Revisioning
*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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?