‘Pay It Forward’

A famed psychologist and Gifted Persons Advocate analyzes the new film ‘Pay It Forward’

“The inner world of the gifted person is always filled with balancing acts and turmoil,” explains Dr. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen. “It’s sad but true.”

She stops. Waits a moment. Thinks it through. Continues.

“It’s very risky business to be a creator of ideas,” she says, “because the first thing that happens to a fresh idea in our society–especially an idea that has any integrity to it–is that it gets slapped around like a bad baby. What kills so many brilliant ideas is all the ‘wet blanketing’ that begins to hit it the moment it sees the light of day.

“Bright people,” she adds, “have to constantly get themselves up, dust themselves off, and recreate, from scratch, their own courage and convictions.

“I know,” she adds. “I’ve done it my whole life.”

Dr. Jacobsen is the founder of OmegaPoint Resources, a consultation service dedicated to “advanced human development.” A psychologist with a private practice in St. Paul, Minnesota, she’s also the author of the best-selling guide book Liberating Everyday Genius: A Revolutionary Guide to Identifying and Mastering Your Exceptional Gifts (1999, Ballantine).

To be released this month in paperback, under the title The Gifted Adult, Jacobsen’s eye-opening tome is an attempt to liberate the millions of frustrated, unsatisfied individuals she believes are latently gifted–secret geniuses whose exceptional gifts are unknown even to themselves.

One example of such an ‘everyday genius’ is young Trevor McKinney, the 12-year-old latchkey kid played by Haley Joel Osment in the controversial film Pay It Forward.

The movie–directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and also starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt–tells what happens when Trevor’s social studies class is instructed to think of a way to change the world. The teacher (Spacey) is himself something of a wonder, a deeply introspective man who hides behind a mask of serious burn scars.

What Trevor devises is a plan with unexpected consequences: he will a good deed for three different people and make them promise, not to pay the favor back, but to pay it forward to three other people, each of whom must help three others, and so on.

Though critics have dumped unprecedented amounts of scorn on the film, attacking its heavy-handed manipulation of the audience’s emotions, the film does maintain a remarkable balance between optimism and pessimism.

Trevor’s scheme, while clearly having some positive impact on the world, ultimately brings as much derision and skepticism–and outright fury–as it does success and satisfaction.

This illustrates one of Jacobsen’s main points, among the chief reasons she chose to become an advocate for the gifted: some everyday geniuses, though they live in a world that supposedly prizes innovation, can end up paying a terrible price for their gift.

“It does extract quite a price for many people,” Jacobsen agrees, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their lives are lives of misery. That’s not the case. But it can be very painful for bright young kids to notice what’s going on in the society around them, and to see that everybody else just kind of take it for granted and accepts it.

“I’ll give you an example from my own life, when I was very little. I remember the time I came across some old World War II movie on TV. I’d never seen anything like it before. I remember running out to the kitchen and saying to my mother, ‘There’s war! There’s war!’ It was my first conception that there was such a thing, and I was beside myself. ‘There’s war! We have to do something about it. What can we do?’

“And my mother was very kind. She didn’t blow me off or laugh, but she was clearly not as upset about war as I was. Next thing I know she was saying, ‘It’s time for dinner.” And I said, ‘Dinner? We can’t have dinner. There’s war!’

“When Helen Hunt’s character [Trevor’s struggling alcoholic mother] comes storming into the classroom, she says, ‘You can’t give an assignment like that to a kid like this! He’ll believe it. He’ll do it. He’ll try to change the world and expect the world to change.’ That’s very true for gifted kids. They will go to the heart of the matter and will take it into a depth of understanding that the adults around them can’t know or appreciate.”

Jacobsen pauses again. She waits. Then she laughs.

“It’s really remarkable how well this film relates to my book,” she says. “If the gifted people in this story had read my book, they might not have been so hard on each other–and on themselves.”

So Trevor really is the ultimate gifted child?

“He is,” Jacobsen says. “The only thing I’d like to see, in some movie sometime in the future, is a gifted kid who’s big, strong, athletic and popular. They’re always shown in the movies as little, picked on, marginalized nerds, but they can be anyone.”

And do they always tend to be so . . . um, sensitive?

“Most of them are,” Jacobsen replies. “Moral outrage starts early. We have this whole clunk of gifted kids out there who are naturally designed to be extra sensitive to the goodness and badness of the world. These are the little monitors of the playground, theses are the little champions of justice in the nursery school, people who are constantly upset by injustice and unfairness. Unfairness takes gifted kids apart.”

According to Jacobsen, the Pay it Forward idea–with its emphasis on cause and effect–is exactly the kind of plan a gifted kid would think of.

“A gifted person realizes that everything they do, and also what they don’t do, will cause a ripple effect,” she says. “Every action, every thought, is like throwing a pebble in the pond, and it leaves a wake, either a wake of constructiveness or a wake of destruction. That’s true for every one of us.”

One more pause. One last chuckle. And a final remark.

“It’s a huge responsibility, you know, to be gifted,” says Dr. Jacobsen “It’s a blessing and a curse, but it’s a responsibility. Because the more you’ve got, the more you’ve got to do.”

From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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