by Bernard Brandt
I have a terrible confession to make: I have a high intelligence quotient. Worse than that, it is not just Mensa level. It is, quite frankly, Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking level. My mother tells me that I started speaking when I was three months old. She also tells me that, after she had been reading to me for about a year, starting almost from birth, I started speaking the words of the book myself along with her. By the time I was two, I was quite happily reading by myself.
It gets worse. My parents told me, later, that when I was six, and they had gone to my parent-teacher conference, the teacher told them that I was at that time reading at an eighth grade level. She told them this because she wanted their help in getting me to stop reading. She felt that I was embarrassing the other kids. And she thought that eventually, I would get to be ‘normal’, anyway.
I don’t know about the other kids, but she was definitely wrong about my becoming ‘normal’. It seemed that I always remained about eight years ahead of the other kids, in terms of both knowledge and reading interests. But fortunately, my father and mother had a large library, and I could pursue my own education at home, after enduring school during the day. And fortunately also, by third grade I had discovered the California public library, which in the days of my youth was once pretty good.
But unfortunately, I was stuck in classes where just about everything they taught was inexpressibly boring, because I had already learned it years ago.
Now, imagine yourself as an eighth grader, being put into first grade, and told that you had to stay there for a year.
Imagine, if you can, what it would be like if you were kept in that position, eight years behind your actual grade level, for eight years.
That was my life in grade school, both in public and private schools.
Of course, it was even worse than that. My teachers didn’t seem to care that I was unutterably bored with what they were trying to teach me. If anything, they called me ‘smart-aleck’, and ‘know-it-all’, and marked me down to barely passing grades. I had only one teacher in those days who actually tried letting me learn at my own level. She died about half way through the school year. I mourned her death, both for the loss of the good person that she was, and the only teacher in those years who actually tried to teach me at my own level.
It is a very simple thing to train a wild animal so that it is docile. All you need to do is to capture it young enough, and either to imprison it in a cage, or bind it so that, while still young and weak, it is so bound that it can not move. Eventually, the baby elephant will learn that it can not escape from its chains, or the tiger from its cage. And years after, the elephant will stand meekly while bound by the foot with a twine rope, or the tiger will patiently pace the steps of its weak rattan cage.
I can tell you, from bitter experience, that the same thing works for human beings.
My cage was mainly the settled conviction that you could either get an education for yourself, or be stuck in school, but that you could not do both. This, combined with the belief that I could only get an education by studying it by myself, led to poor grades in high school and college, ensuring that I would not be able to pursue graduate school.
But there were some other walls to that cage. Those walls consisted of the fact that I was not exposed to certain things at all in school, or not until the optimal years for learning them had passed. Music was one of the former categories; languages was an example of the latter. I never had classes in Music at all from kindergarten through college. I was not started on French and Latin until my freshman year of high school, just past the optimal period for learning languages. And mathematics, which was taught as a rote process of calculations by my grade school teachers, and taught poorly at that, earned my particular hatred, from the boredom and pain which my teachers had caused me.
Those walls basically barred me from any effective opportunity to pursue higher liberal or scientific or artistic studies, studies which I might otherwise have challenged me, or helped me.
And while, by high school, I had finally been placed in an honors class, I met very few students there who were at my inner level, or anywhere near. Two, in fact. While I had met one other at that time outside of school, who remains my dearest and oldest friend, I remained alone, and very lonely. So lonely, in fact, that I saved up my money, and took the application test for Mensa, when I was sixteen.
I remember that test well. It took place at a class room at UCLA. I handed the examiner (an attractive woman in her early 30s, who brought with her an armload of books) my pass. She handed me and the few others there two flat packages, and after looking at the clock, instructed us to open one. We worked with no. 2 pencils filling out little circles. She read her books. At the end of an hour and a half or so, she picked up the packages we had opened, and told us to open the second package. We did so, and worked on those while she read some more. At the end of another hour and a half, she told us to stop, collected the packages, and told us to go home.
Those three hours were the first real challenge I had experienced in all my years of school.
A few weeks later, I received the results of the tests. On the first test, the Weschler, I scored at a level of 1:6500. On the second, which was a Stanford-Binet, I scored at a level of 1:4500. As I recall feeling pretty tired half way through the second test, I credit the lower score of that test to test fatigue.
What those tests meant, however, was that on the bell chart for that particular range of skills, I was far out on the flat, bleeding edge of the right side of that curve. Only one in six thousand five hundred people would get the same score that I did. Since Mensa membership required only a score of 1:98, I was in.
Much good that did me. Not!
I was looking for people with whom I could talk, who might even become friends. What I found instead was a bunch of self-important people who paraded their IQs as a replacement for their accomplishments. I also found that most of those lot were grouped in the lower ranks of the IQ-laden. I learned to despise them, in part, because they were mid-wits; but more, I despised them because they played conversations like a zero sum game; you know, the ‘I-win-you-lose’ sort.
Perhaps the only good thing that came out of joining Mensa was that I learned just how obnoxious that sort of behaviour was, and it impelled me to stop doing it myself. I suppose that in a way, I should be grateful to them for that. And maybe things have changed since I was a member. After all, it was nearly fifty years ago. But I like to say that I was smart enough to join Mensa when I was sixteen, and wise enough to quit the group six months later.
But the whole affair left me sick unto death of mid-wits who think that they’re ‘all that’, or who try to engage me in an ‘I win, you lose’ battle of wits. When that happens, I will go out of my way to tell them, either by trouncing them, or in so many words: “Honey, you may have some intellectual pride, but you don’t have all that much to be proud of.”
I much prefer conversations where everyone can win. And I have long ago taken to heart one of the sayings of Confucius: “Some account me among the wise, but I have something to learn from at least one out of three people walking around.” And I have found that to be true for myself.
But unfortunately, my story gets worse. I scored at that level when I was 16, but from looking inward at myself at the time, and from other indications, my ability to think was still continuing to grow. While I have not taken an intelligence test to which I had the results since I was 16, I would estimate that by the age of 20, when my intellect had reached its full extent, I was at a level of 1:10000, or one in ten thousand. And I find that I have not diminished very far from that level in the last fifty or so years. If anything, my crystallized intelligence, or ability to use my intelligence, has increased in those years.
Yeah, and that, together with five or so bucks, will buy me a latte at Starbucks. There are only three or four flies in that particular jar of ointment.
The first is that I know very well that there are more intelligent, and wiser, people in this world than I am. I have had the great pleasure of meeting some of them, and have gained greatly from their acquaintance, and from their friendship. Thus, in the words of the Desiderata, I have learned that “…[i]f you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
The second is that there are some real disadvantages to high intelligence. Severe loneliness is one. I have had to take some rather difficult steps to overcome that. One was to cultivate the ability to speak with anyone whom I met. But it’s still hard. Fortunately, I have some very dear and bright friends, whom I have known for a long time, and whom I can talk to without talking down. A fair number of them go to my little church at the end of the world, which also helps. The internet and FB also helps.
Another disadvantage of high intelligence is, that unless one takes steps to avoid them, the stresses which high intelligence often induce can lead to some very real illnesses. For me, those steps started with relaxation therapy, self-hypnosis, and autogenic training. They proceeded to examining and pursuing meditation. I am now pursuing a serious (and private, thank you) prayer life and ascetic struggle. While I would like eventually to join a monastery, somehow I think I’d be more trouble than I would be worth. And so, I think I will remain as a hermit.
But the third difficulty, and by far the hardest, has been my memory. It is, alas, nearly eidetic. This is great if one wants to be a scholar. It becomes its unique and most painful form of hell when one relives, on a near daily basis, the death of one’s first wife, and then, twenty some years later, one’s second wife as well. As I have remarked before, the only relief from the memories was to get too drunk to recall them. And that, of course, led only to a cascade of other problems, both physical and psychological illness, which was in the process of killing me.
It was only through the patient help of several friends, particularly my spiritual father, and of my dearest and oldest friend, whose genuine spiritual gift helped to heal my memories, that I have been able to begin to recover from the last score and more of years of a hell on earth.
And now, in my sixty-fourth year, having finally begun to come to something resembling my senses, I find that, in the words of the hymn I sing each Great Lent, “I have wasted my life in laziness.” I have in fact buried the talent that was given to me, rather than making full use of it. While I have in fact managed now and then to challenge myself, and to accomplish something, that happened far too seldom.
My only consolation is that, if I take care of my health, I have every possibility of thirty more productive years of life. I do hope so. I have a lot to repent of, and to recover from.
And so, as with the Litany that I help to chant each Sunday: “In peace and repentance, let us pray to the Lord.”
Lord, have mercy.