The Proof and Price of Genius

There’s a whole genre of internet articles out there with one basic reassurance: whatever your vices are, they make you different and better than everybody else.

Maybe you’re a Genius, maybe you’re an Empath, a Creative, maybe you’re just Highly Intelligent, but one way or another you’ve got some enviable superpowers, and your high-octane brain just can’t help but cause problems. Are you really disorganized? Do you drink way more than you should? Do most people disgust you due to their revolting psychological flaws? Of course these things happen! It’s natural and inevitable for someone on your level to live that kind of life, and everyone else has a deep moral duty to understand your issues and let them all slide.

Whatever you’re into you can find proof that Geniuses like you are tortured torturers, that the pain you feel and cause is evidence and consequence of some Promethean superpowers. Ludwig Wittgenstein beat the crap out of slow-learning children. Martin Heidegger died an unrepentant Nazi. Georg Cantor could barely stay out of insane asylums. Steve Jobs died trying to cure his cancer with all-fruit smoothies. Too many writers to count lived a desperate life of addiction and suicide.

So, there you have it! Your flaws aren’t garden-variety issues that everyone can and should try to overcome. Your issues are the proof and price of genius, of a scope and complexity and importance that ordinary people can only dream of, a sure promise that your name will be in lights someday, red meat for the hordes of biographers and historians that are guaranteed to dig into your story.

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I’m going to come right out and say that this attitude is bad, and that it’s a bad thing to reinforce. I don’t want to deny differences in human ability — I also don’t want to deny the importance of patience in our struggles with ourselves.

I do think it’s important to get past the idea that anybody is categorically excused from these struggles. It’s also important to get past the idea that anybody’s particular struggle is singular, incomprehensible to the human world around them, that you are expected and compelled to face your demons alone.

I want to cheer people who are open about their struggles, who are open about the fact that their struggles are exactly that: problems to be overcome, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, often with profound difficulty, but never something to be taken for granted and written off. I want to cheer people who never say “you need to make me feel better about hurting you”.

The basic fact of being alive can be very hard to deal with, and it’s made harder by the idea that we have to face it by ourselves, that weakness is a shameful private moral failure. It’s made doubly-hard by the idea that our pain is something to cherish, even to worship. Getting help and offering help is probably the most important moral choice available to us.

In the end, whether we think of ourselves as alone or as in this together, we’ll ultimately be right.