Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James T. Webb, Ph.D.
A Book Review By Wendy A. Skinner
In the process of editing my book about the challenges of raising a gifted son and daughter, Jim Webb, my publisher, got to know our family very well. At one point, I had confided in him that my 10-year-old daughter had planned her own suicide and landed in a day treatment program. During this time, she routinely bemoaned the plights of the world. “I can’t listen to the news,” she’d say. “The war in Iraq, global warming, the rain forests disappearing…” Webb said it sounded like she was experiencing “existential depression.” At the time, the term went over my head, but whatever it was called, my daughter had experienced it so intensely that she’d wanted to end it all.
Fast forward eight years to today. I now understand what he meant by existential depression. Webb’s new book, Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, gave me an immediate connection to my daughter’s struggles with plenty of insight and tools for anyone to make positive life changes.
I learned that there’s a strong connection between disillusionment, isolation, and depression, especially as it relates to bright people. Their intense sensitivity impacts how they perceive and respond to their world and can cause them greater disillusionment than the average person. As they grow from childhood into adulthood, they realize that rules of society are extremely complex and arbitrary. They see hypocrisy and become disillusioned, for example, when their parents say they love each other but later divorce, or a drunk driver with a long DWI record kills a friend. They “see how things might be and should be” and want to change or make right these wrongs. If they feel they’re alone in their concerns, some bright people eventually wonder why they even bother to wake up in the morning.
My daughter, now a 19-year-old college student, picked up the book last night. “The cover’s corny,” she said. She began to page through it anyway. She and stopped and read aloud the first column in a table called Characteristic Strengths and Associated Difficulties and Challenges for Gifted Adolescents and Adults. “Yep.” She nodded. “Large store of information in advanced areas? Check. Diverse interests and abilities? Check. Multi-talented? Check.” She chuckled, as she read the associated difficulties. “Career decision problems, frustration over lack of time, feeling different from others…That’s me alright.”
This book uncannily describes my daughter (and my husband, brother-in-law, friend…), her outlook on life, and her intensities. Webb understands his subject deeply and knows how to give valuable advice. Toward the end of the book there’s a fascinating chapter discussing not-so-healthy coping styles, such as learning not to care, numbing your mind, seeking adrenaline rushes, and withdrawing. Some of these coping styles can help in tiny doses, but making a habit of them can cause more harm than good. I’d witnessed my daughter using these coping styles years ago, and I must admit that at times I’ve used my fair share of them, too.
The most inspiring and motivating discussion for me, however, revolved around the healthy coping skills, such as those related to getting involved in a cause, touching and feeling more connected to others, and living in the present moment. Webb also offers concrete exercises on how to arrive at your own life’s meaning and purpose, i.e. happiness. They aren’t quickly or easily accomplished, but they are doable if you give them time with honest thought and reflection—things we might avoid or are uncomfortable doing, but must do if we want to move forward with life.
Our daughter has matured into a confident, happy young woman, and after much debating—remember “diverse interests and abilities”—she recently declared her major environmental studies. She’s found a community of people who share her concerns—for now. I suspect that when her life shifts again after college, her intense sense of justice will cause disillusionment once again.
In the meantime, I’m recommending Searching for Meaning to her—and to you.
Wendy A. Skinner is the author of Life with Gifted Children: Infinity and Zebra Stripes, published by Great Potential Press and winner of the Arizona Glyph Award. Her nonfiction articles have appeared in Teaching for High Potential, Parenting for High Potential, and Understanding Our Gifted. She writes from St. Louis Park, MN, and you can visit her at www.wendyaskinner.com.
[This book review will be published in OUTLOOK, Nov/Dec, 2013, Vol. 26, No. 4, a publication of the Minnesota Council for Gifted & Talented.]