I’ve put off posting for a while because of a whole crapload of reasons, most of which are boring, even to me. So, I’ll just jump right in…
I think you should know that writing about, or even discussing, being gifted is something I Don’t Do very often. It’s right up there, in my categorization of social skills, with asking an attractive person of the opposite sex, whom you just met an hour ago, to take a look at the fungus on your privates to see if he knows what it might be and how to cure it. It doesn’t fit into my southern upbringing, which prioritizes good humor and humility, and I have found that talking about being gifted often changes the way people treat me. I have to trust that you will take it in stride and continue to be the same person you were to me previously, or that you’ll have the courtesy to ask me whatever questions you want to ask and then move the heck on, which is what I mostly do about it myself.
So, here’s that last socially smelly sock at the bottom of my nerd hamper -- I’m a member of Mensa. I’ve been a member for over 15 years, and I like it. I’m not particularly active, but I still like being a member. And I don’t tell people about it hardly ever, I don’t list it on my resume unless I have good reason to believe that the person reviewing that resume will respond positively, and I simply don’t consider it any different from other groups that I belong to, each of which has a focus of some sort, and which have specialized journals and jargons pertaining to the interests of the group.
There are usually two groups of responses to finding out I’m in Mensa (if you have come to know this outside my “friendship/trust” framework) – a) competitiveness –to prove you are as gifted or more so than I am and that you’re worthy of my respect and appreciation, and consequently elevating both me and Mensa to a position way beyond what we deserve based on name recognition alone, and b) denigration - that you don’t think it means anything, but you’re going to shoot me down anyway, if not directly, then by making a lot of dunning remarks about Mensa. I categorize both reactions as “the 142nd fastest gun in the West” responses, humorous and completely unnecessary.
Because being in Mensa, or being gifted, is like being the 142nd Fastest Gun in the West; it’s not a particularly unique position, from a standpoint of the number of qualifying persons, it is only significant in the great pool of large statistical numbers, and there really is no point in challenging me to either prove my worth or convince me of yours, or to pointlessly jab and slash at anyone who’s gifted. It’s just a state of being; I was not given a choice about being gifted, any more than I was given a choice about being born female, American, or right-handed, and I like all those things about myself, too.
And, Mensa is not what it’s perceived to be. I’m sure that if you look hard enough you’ll find members who want to tell you their IQ and the IQ of everyone else, or at least their estimates thereof, and there are plenty of people in any group, Mensa or otherwise, who have the answers to all the world’s problems, whether anyone wants to listen to them or not. There are also plenty of droners. Mensa does not exist to consult with governments or create life from household chemicals for corporations or just for fun. It’s a social support group for smart people who need a social support group of other smart people. That’s all.
There are great conversations, witty ripostes, truly competitive games and puzzles, varying levels of expertise in a surprisingly dizzying array of people from all walks of life in all kinds of topics, and a group joke about chocolate. And there are “problem children” – people who have too much hair, adipose tissue, religion, arrogance, mental illness, or simple strangeness, or too little of something from more categories than I can mention. All of which has the effect of making it a great cauldron of tolerance, as well as being a social support group.
Public bias has mistakenly confused giftedness with superiority, much as it confuses wealth with happiness. Each is completely independent of and very, very different from the other, regardless of some superficial similarities. Consequently, I hear and read somewhat laughable commentary about how incredibly smart Mensans are, and how arrogant they must be, and what’s it like to have all that brainpower in one place, and what are they up to (as if meetings were concerned with creating new stealth bombs). Some of the commentary is extremely complimentary (and, often, quite off base) and other comments are envious (and also off base). Newspaper articles tend to poke fun at Mensans for not being what the writer wanted them to be (dry, humorless, pontificating physicists with excess eyebrow hair, judging from the articles I’ve read).
I suppose the best analogy for a Mensa meeting that I could make would be:
Suppose you and 20 of your favorite college professors and high school teachers and a couple of other people you think are interesting, all go off for a buffet dinner, free bar, and decide, at 11 p.m. at night, to go out fishing. There you are, full of good cheer, on a boat, trying not to snag each other’s eyelids as you cast your lines, and talking about God only knows what while you wait for something to bite.
You can hear your history professor and your best friend, a hairdresser who reads Proust during slow times in the salon, heatedly debating current politics behind your left shoulder. Your Calculus teacher and your uncle, a janitor at Lockheed, are discussing the merits of Portuguese gourmet cuisine behind your right shoulder. Your English professor is busy trying not to be seasick over the stern and singing dirty ditties in Olde Englische between belches, all by her lonesome.
The Captain, poor slob, is bitching up a storm at some malfunctioning mechanical bits, which, by listening carefully, you realize that you personally can fix. You hand your rod to your son, who is arguing in French with your former Microbiology professor about science fiction authors, and head over to bang wrenches with the Captain. You’re joined by three engineers, none of whom are the slightest bit helpful, and all of whom spend most of the time disagreeing with each other. When someone breaks out the slide rules, you know it’s gotten ugly. Fortunately, the engine runs again, and you do make it back to shore. There are no fish, but everyone had a great time.
So, if you think Mensa is a group ego fest, it’s not. It’s also not the greatest problem-solving organization, and it’s not a gathering place for the great, the somber, the emotionally sober, or even the particularly enviable. It is a social support group for smart people who need somewhere to go and let down their guards and just be themselves, whether it involves being overtly smart or not. Lots of people already have those support groups in their daily lives, and they don’t join Mensa because they have no need to do so. Some of the rest of us do.
Like most groups, Mensa does do spiffy things – scholarships, community service, colloquia of interest, research, etc., and there are publications, smaller sub-groups, and a variety of activities based on interest and willingness to participate. More info at the main website here: http://www.us.mensa.org//AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home
Me, I’m off to do laundry and not think about this topic any more for now. Although I’m pretty sure I’ll need some chocolate to get over it. ; )