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Orson Scott Card: Talents, gifts and intelligence

Published: Thursday, Feb. 17 2011 5:30 a.m. MST

My recent stroke was very minor, but for a while it was very hard to touch-type with my left hand. Since I make my living by typing, this was a worry. But we installed voice-recognition software on my computer and, if all else failed, I could always dictate into a recorder for someone else to type.

I was grateful that I had not sustained any damage that interfered with speech and thinking — not every stroke victim is so fortunate. And with practice, the ability to type with reasonable accuracy returned quickly.

For me, the really harsh shock came on my first Sunday back in church. I opened my mouth to sing the opening hymn, and what came out was … not my voice. My pitch control was very uncertain, and all vibrato was gone.

It made perfect sense. My brain's ability to control exact placement of muscles on the left side of my body had been impaired, and that meant my vocal cords did not sync up properly. Just as my left foot and hand were no longer quite where I expected them to be, half my vocal apparatus was not obedient to me.

I was surprised at what a devastating blow this was to me. The impairments to my typing and to walking I took in stride, with humor and determination. But to lose my singing voice was emotionally devastating. Why?

I have never made my living by singing; since I can't remember song lyrics, my public performances have always been limited to church or singing around the piano at home, where the music was in front of me. Why did it hit me so hard?

I realized that even before I could read, I could sing. I was a boy soprano with perfect relative pitch. I must have been darling indeed at age 5, singing "Ol' Man River" and "I'll Walk With God."

It didn't matter very much that adults praised my singing; what mattered was that I loved to do it. I loved to harmonize, and had plenty of opportunities, since my family could all sing and did so at every opportunity.

I didn't handle the transition from boy soprano to baritone very well, and at one point, during my mission, I relearned how to produce a pure tone to get rid of some bad habits I had developed. But even then, my voice did whatever I wanted it to do.

What I realized, when my voice went missing last month, was that unlike writing or typing, singing was part of my identity. I could imagine ceasing to be a writer; but who was I if I couldn't sing?

I'm over it now — I had a bad couple of days, but I know I'm still me. Singing is, after all, a physical talent. Like any athletic ability, it's tied to the body I happened to get when I was given a place in this mortal life.

Our bodies come with all kinds of assets and liabilities. Mine had a keen awareness of pitch and a strong vocal instrument — and because I enjoyed it, I made as much of it as I could, though I never considered making a career of it.

My body was slow to develop athletic skills, however, and I was not an aggressive player. I didn't care enough to practice shooting hoops or throwing balls enough to become adequate. But I learned to touch-type and became a whiz. I'm a finger-athlete, that's all.

My body gave me another set of skills. It happened that I had a facility with language, a quick memory, and I was reasonably good with logic, numbers and spatial relationships.

My parents had instilled me with confidence, I was good at following instructions, and the combined result was that I rocked at taking IQ and achievement tests. Because those are the things such tests measure.

Here's where things can get confusing, especially to young Latter-day Saints. We have scriptures that say "the glory of God is intelligence" (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36) and "whatever principle of intelligence" we reach "in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18).

As a 10-year-old, those were some of my favorite scriptures. Didn't I have test scores that said I was intelligent? And that was the glory of God!

Then I got a little older and applied some logic to those scriptures. It is obvious enough that when the Lord says that the intelligence he values comes through "diligence and obedience" (Doctrine and Covenants 130:19), he's not talking about anything the IQ test measures.

I have since realized that these scriptures are older than the IQ test. Joseph Smith, in struggling to find English words to explain some of the pure knowledge that the Spirit had put into his mind, took the word "intelligence," which then had to do more with clear and accurate understanding than with innate abilities, and put it to use to stand for a concept which had no word because it was unthought-of previous to these revelations.

In other words, being born with a brain that could do IQ gymnastics had nothing to do with the "principle of intelligence" that God valued.

Instead, what the world calls intelligence is exactly analogous with singing talent or athletic gifts: They are part of our Second Estate, acquired at birth.

Everybody who is born into this world can, through "diligence and obedience," achieve that "principle of intelligence" that God sent us here to "attain." Even people who do badly on tests or don't excel at school are on a perfectly level playing field with those whose IQ is off the charts.

Our bodies come with a mix of abilities and disabilities. What God cares about is not what we're born with, but how we use whatever talents we've been given.

Great athletes and artists and scientists and businessmen and performers and teachers are judged by God according to how they obey his commandments and how they treat the people around them. A great artist who is utterly selfish is still a jerk. Genius excuses nothing.

And nothing brings this home like losing some of those physical gifts.

As we age, memory fades; bodily functions break down; our thinking thickens. Yet even though we cannot do as well as we used to in some areas, in others our ability never diminishes: We can be kind and helpful, we can be patient and encouraging, we can be generous … or the opposite.

That is how God measures who we really are — and how we should measure ourselves, as well.

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