As a clinical companion of wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and siblings on their life journeys, I’ve come to see a strength focus as a predictor not only of personal well-being – including that of special needs populations – but also of family happiness and relationship satisfaction. Best selling author Tom Rath offers intriguing clues for how strength miners gain advantages lost to others.
In Strengths Finder, Rath notes that workers whose jobs are linked to their aptitudes and skill sets gain confidence, direction, hope and kindness, rippling benefits to families, friends and colleagues. They are also shown to be three times more likely than other workers to gain an excellent quality of life, and six times more likely to engage in their work.
For parents, the question becomes – how can we not only mine strength in ourselves, but in children – and in spouses, for that matter? How can Chosen Families pull this off, especially when confronting stark physical, emotional, psychological and financial burdens?
In fact, strength-mining can ease such challenges and compensate for angst-loaded dysfunctions.
A potent illustration comes from a late 1800’s family that viewed one son, Will, as so dim-witted that by the sixth grade they pulled him out of school, with teacher approval. No point wasting resources on dull ole’ Will.
Hired by his medical doctor brother, Will was saddled with 15 hour workdays at wages that peaked at $87 monthly. Treated as a flunky in a spa catering to wealthy clients, Will suggested marketing customized spa foods, including smushed (ruined, was the thought) and accidentally dried corn kernels – that became surprisingly popular with clients. Dismissed by “Doc,” Will reached beyond his disdainful brother’s oppressive world to sell the corn flakes on his own.
Thus was Kellogg’s born, which “dull Will” Kellogg cleverly guided to a 100-million-dollar enterprise during his lifetime. Will’s problem? He was dyslexic – a dysfunction leading his family to under-rate and limit an extraordinarily gifted life. As Will shed family and social stigma, he identified and unleashed remarkable gifts masked by a neuro-visual disability.
Even loving families can bind disabled members in needless helplessness, inertia and isolation. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks describes Madeleine J., born blind and hampered by cerebral palsy. When institutionalized at age 60, she helplessly awaited others to feed and care for her. Sacks was confounded. Why couldn’t she feed herself? He instructed staff to place food near Madeleine, but not feed her. Sure enough, driven by hunger and frustration, Madeleine clumsily grasped a bagel and lifted it to her lips, a process previously denied by her doting family. In that instant, the “helpless” spell was broken and she was transformed. She soon eagerly reached to feel faces, as neurons lit her brain with images of those speaking into her dark world. Transferring those images into lumps of clay, she produced such remarkable sculptures that she became known in New York as the Blind Sculptress of St. Benedict’s Hospital.
Determined to protect a cherished daughter, Madeleine’s family failed to explore her strengths. Northern Virginia’s Michelle Mack was more fortunate. Due to a stroke in utero, Michelle was born with the left hemisphere of her brain nearly destroyed. But as I have observed, and as seen in PBS special The Power of Half, her faith-filled family helped mine strengths that not only build competencies, but tend to upgrade mood regulation, judgment, empathy, altruism and relationships, as well. Peering past disabilities, doctors also found in Michelle stunning savant gifts now chronicled in New York Times best seller The Brain That Changes Itself.
Clients who arrive at my door with physical, emotional or relationship distress often make remarkable progress when disorders are approached through a back door – through strengths. Yes, the disorder matters. But mining often undiscovered or neglected strengths can progressively revise the autobiography while leveraging internal and external resources that dilute deficits. The process also tends to upgrade the SLQ – Self Love Quotient – which, as it happens, Jesus linked to our capacity to love others (Matthew 19:19).
We’ll take his word for it.