Monthly Archives

April 2008

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Simple Blessings


Every once in a while I am amazed by some simple blessing in our lives. For example, it is amazing to me that we can jump into our cars and travel in climate-controlled, music-filled comfort to our destinations with speed and ease. I get thinking how much I would like to take Brigham Young or one of the pioneers for a ride in our Honda Civic. He would be amazed! Imagine driving him across the country in only a few relaxed days instead of months of sun-baked, soul-blistering plodding.

But then I realize that Brigham certainly has a mode of transportation now that is far superior to our old compact car. In fact his mode of travel must be even better than a Mazda Miata! I don’t know just how immortals travel, but I suspect that it makes our cars look very provincial. While I don’t begrudge him his mode of transportation, I suspect that he would not be impressed by ours.

So my gloating falls flat.

But maybe there is an alternative to gloating: gratitude. Maybe we can feel blessed without needing to feel superior. Maybe Brigham would love to roll down the power window in the Civic and slap the side of the car as we zoom across prairie and plain. Maybe his appreciation does not depend on comparisons but on the simple realization that we are surrounded by blessings.

I’m glad for the blessing of our little Honda Civic. Let’s go for a ride, Brigham!

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Is the Universe Friendly?


“F. W. Myers, when asked what question he would put to the Sphinx, if he were given only one chance, replied that he would ask, ‘Is the universe friendly?’” (Fosdick, 1918, p.51).

When only a little boy I wrestled with a related question. I evaluated the odds of getting in trouble for my assorted misdeeds as opposed to the chance that I would be appreciated for my good intentions. I found myself wondering, “Am I more likely to be in trouble or to be happy?” I wasn’t sure. And I worried about it. I knew I was not man enough to resist the temptation to tease my sister or steal homemade English toffee from my Mom’s stash. I imagined a lifetime in prison.

Youthful misdeeds increased my anxiety. For example, my childish amusement of throwing apricots at passing cars had not turned out well. Though, to tell you the truth, my blameless brother suffered more serious consequences than I. He innocently answered the door when the angry driver came to the house. I hid in the woods while my brother cleaned the apricotted car. Yet I lived in dread of being busted by the law for years thereafter.

Some years later, it seemed to me like an innocent study in science to light matches and throw them off the rock outcropping in the fields near Aunt Mary’s house. The matches made a lovely trail of smoke as they dove to the ground. It never occurred to us that we would start a brush fire.

It seems that life conspires against little boys.

But childhood held more than mischief, anxiety, and unwelcome consequences. My siblings and I grew up in the mountains of Utah. We had a stream to explore, mountains to climb, dragonflies to admire, and all of nature to discover. Imagine a pet skunk, a pet squirrel, and a cheerful collie companion named Pretty Boy. All of that was part of childhood for us.

Life was glorious. Most of the time.

Same tune, second verse

The issue of the nature of nature was still not settled for me when adulthood reluctantly arrived. I found that life also conspires against adults.

I tried to support myself in college with a combination of part-time work and full-time frugality. For example while many of my friends had cars, I saved money by driving a motorcycle, a Honda 175 named Mildred. Mildred and I loved going everywhere together. And most girls I dated (with a couple of notable exceptions) thought my wheels were funner than a Volkswagen—though we were clearly at the mercy of the weather. A skiff of snow or sheet of ice could upend one’s travel plans when a motorcycle is your only means of transportation.

One winter Mildred languished. She would start as usual, run nobly for a while, and then lose power. I assumed that a logical guy majoring in physics could conquer her balkiness. So I spent hours scouring the manual, adjusting the timing, and checking the wires. Admittedly I had no experience at this special application of physics—but how hard can it be to fix a motorcycle?

Very hard. I ultimately got Mildred so messed up that I had to drag her to the shop. It was scant comfort that the mechanics could not find the problem any better than I. They tinkered with this and replaced that. All at my expense. Mildred had betrayed me. I might as well have bought the Volkswagen.

Several hundred dollars later, the shop discovered that Mildred had a temperamental spark plug. It worked some times and failed at others. After all my frugality I paid a terrible price for a $2 spark plug.

The universe didn’t feel very friendly to a scrimping college student after being betrayed by his “faithful” companion. Goethe’s words might be too dramatic to describe the exorbitant expense of a spark plug, but we have each—at one time or another–felt like a “troubled wanderer upon a darkened earth” (p.64).

Good from bad

As I was finishing college I dated a kind, gentle, and lovely woman named Nancy. She loved Mildred in spite of her occasional balkiness. On our first date I picked Nancy up early one Saturday morning to go for a motorcycle ride up a glorious canyon. But, as we entered the canyon, the clutch hung up. I was humiliated by Mildred. Another point scored for entropy and general anarchy.

But Nancy knew how to turn bad into good. She cheerfully offered to push the motorcycle the seven miles to the shop as I sat on it and steered. I was amazed! I offered to push while she steered but she insisted on taking her turn. Nancy turned a chore into recreation. Score several points for a benevolent universe.

Nancy and I married.

We had been married about a year when we got pregnant, a burden which one of us bore disproportionately. Pregnancy wasn’t fun for Nancy. Weeks of nausea then swollen ankles. Yet she rejoiced in the growing life within her. When it was time for delivery, I rubbed Nancy’s back for hours and hours. Through the night, the morning, and the afternoon. Finally little Emily emerged. I never remember a time when I felt more amazed. I exulted to Nancy, “Wow! This is a miracle! We should have more children!”

Nancy groaned.

But in time we did have more children. Delightful Andy and Sweet Sara. Interspersed between the joyous arrivals, we also had more than twenty miscarriages. This is not a picture with a clear message. The universe gives and the universe withholds. Is nature a friend or a foe?

As a parent of little children I found that it is quite natural to be chronically irritated. We may be glad for children in principle, but babies spit up, toys accumulate, and shoes track vast mud reserves into our lives. And there are mumps, measles, chicken pox, and, in time, dating.

Growth

So our children grew up. They were people we loved and cherished. That is a blessing. Yet we worried. Would they make good choices? Would they be healthy? Would they do good things with their lives?

I thought maybe I could retire from fretting when our children started families of their own. It hasn’t worked that way. We love more little people while having even less direct influence. We worry about them learning to walk, learning to read, getting hurt by friends, managing their vast energy, and getting jailed for throwing apricots at passing cars. It seems that there are so many hazards in this world.

Sometimes I think nature is our friend. Sometimes I fret.

So life doesn’t provide a simple definitive answer to the big question. Is life a burden to be borne or a blessing to be celebrated?

It is tempting to say it is both. Or maybe life is simply indifferent. Or maybe it is what we make of it. Pat answers don’t do justice to the complexity of experience.

Laws and lawgivers

The laws of thermodynamics seem to suggest that our bodies will fall apart, toys will break, machines will mock us, and sickness will dog us. But I have a growing suspicion that there is a lot that thermodynamics can’t explain.

Physics can’t explain the feeling I had when Emily was born. Physics can’t explain the pure joy I feel when I sit next to my beloved Nancy. The laws of nature don’t explain the yearning I feel for the grandkids to come over and wreck our house. The laws of nature cannot account for love, joy, peace, and everything that seems to matter.

Another generation

I suppose I learned that once again when Max, our first grandson was born. Natalie struggled through a long night of labor while Andy comforted her. Every minute seemed to stretch her soul to the breaking point. Exhilaration of impending arrival had given way to exhaustion by the time tiny Max arrived. Natalie was bleeding so the nurse handed Max to my sweet Nancy while all in the room but Nancy and I turned their attention to Natalie.

Nancy held Max close and began to whisper to him. “Welcome to this world Max. Welcome to our family. We love you. We always will love you.” The tears streamed down my face and I knew what I believed.

Life conspires relentlessly to bless us. Even our pains add meaning to our joys. I have what Fosdick (1918) called an “irrepressible impulse to thank somebody” (p.53).

The Sphinx has spoken to me. I know what I believe. Life is good. The universe is friendly.

Reference:

Harry Emerson Fosdick: The Meaning of Faith, 1918, NY: Association Press.

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Becoming a Godly Healer


I had finished an evening of Bishop interviews and was about to head home when the office phone rang. A woman in the ward asked if she could discuss a problem with me. I was tired but glad to do my father-of-the-ward duty.

She told me that she was totally disappointed with her husband. She found him to be completely useless. As she warmed to the subject she declared that he had never contributed anything to her or their family.

I should tell you about her husband. He was indeed somewhat scatterbrained. I think of him as a gentle eccentric. But he worked hard as a university professor, supported his family well, was almost uniformly gentle, spent spare time caring for their home, and was active in the Church.

Limited options

The woman who called was famously volatile so, in spite of the seeming unfairness of her accusations, I made extra efforts to be understanding, patient, and supportive of her. The woman continued her complaint. In fact, she continued for more than an hour.

Two response options seemed to be available to me:

  1. I could agree with her. The troubled woman seemed to favor this option. She seemed to want justification to exit her disappointing marriage. She was frustrated and unhappy.
  2. I could disagree with her. I could challenge her to see her husband’s contributions and intentions.

For an hour or two I did something like #1. I tried to be supportive even though I didn’t fully agree with her. Then, for 5 minutes, I did #2. Because her complaints were unfair and extreme, I challenged her to be more balanced. That was when our discussion broke down. I had missed the real point. She was trying to tell me something I was missing entirely. I was listening to the words and missing the message.

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Missed messages

She was trying to tell me that she felt lonely and trapped. She had been injured by life. She, like the man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho in Jesus’ famous parable, felt wounded and half dead. Was the problem one of crushed idealism? Was it one of conflicting styles between husband and wife? Was it a matter of exhaustion and loneliness?

I will never know. By turning my will against hers, I closed off the channels of communication. I was suckered into a debate about the merits of her complaint and missed the cry of her soul. I was like either the priest or Levite. I had walked around the injured one without being touched by the feeling of her infirmity (See Hebrews 4:15).

Imitating a better model

I wish I had known at the time how to be a good Samaritan. The Samaritan did not chide the injured one for his foolish journey. He did something wonderfully different. “When he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:33-34).

In this great story Jesus offers us the model of a compassionate healer. The good Samaritan does not even consider the foolishness or deservingness of the injured traveler. He does not seek to assign blame. He has compassion, offers all the healing available, and carries him to a place of further healing.

Consider how much better compassion serves us than any debating of culpability. I did not need to weigh in on her argument or her husband’s merits. I could offer compassion. Imagine that I had said any or all of the following:

  • You must feel terribly lonely.
  • You sound very hurt and disappointed.
  • Every day that you feel that way must be a terrible burden.
  • I don’t know how you keep going when you feel that way.

Note that none of these compassionate responses suggest that I either agree or disagree with her. I do not need to take sides. I simply offer compassion on the altar of her suffering.

Continued healing

Yet there is another vital step on the road to being made whole. When an injured one is starting to feel peaceful, we carry her or him to the inn where the Perfect Innkeeper and His helpers can minister to her. As the pastor of her soul, I could have offered my compassion and tears. Then I might have invited her to the next stage of healing. I might have invited her: “I honor you for continuing to try when you feel so discouraged. Given that you have made covenants with God and your husband, what do you think God would have you do to make your marriage more of what it should be?”

I have no illusions that she would immediately say, “Wow! I have not been fair to my husband. I need to cultivate some charity in my heart and find ways to work with him.” A woman who had felt hurt and alienated for decades was not going to instantly become a glad spouse. Healing takes time—and often a big chunk of eternity.

But by trying to force my version of correction on her, I dishonored the only One who can heal reliably. I tried to play healer and righter of wrongs. I turned my will against her and she turned hers against me. I wish I had known more about how to invite people to the Healer.

Periodic conversations with her might have involved continuing doses of compassion. And various forms of the question about God’s plan for her might have been supplemented by a joint exploration of scripture. We could have sought to be taught from on High.

Injury in the workplace

Recently I experienced another form of the same challenge. A colleague shared with me that she worried that our work group was sometimes too negative. Sometimes we may have ganged up on this administrator or that colleague. She was right. But notice the complication. When a co-worker complains about an administrator, I can challenge my co-worker. “I think we should speak more kindly.” But maybe this is akin to telling the injured traveler that he was unwise to travel alone from Jerusalem to Jericho. Maybe I am turning against my co-worker. If I accuse the complainer of being judgmental or a gossip, I have become an accuser rather than a healer.

So how do we bring a positive spirit to our conversations without turning against co-workers, friends, and family members? The formula is the same. First, we show compassion. We try to understand what the complaint means to the person who makes it. Maybe the person feels personally hurt or worried about her job. We offer empathy. Second, we invite positive action: “What do you think we can do to make things better with that person?”

God has not appointed us to be the ultimate fixers. He invites us to be fellow travelers. If I hope to be the kind of fellow traveler that the good Samaritan was, I must monitor my heart. Is it filled with harrowing or healing, tearing down or lifting up, accusing or advocating?

The good Samaritan not only carried the injured traveler to a place of healing, he also paid the two pence for future healing. That two pence was the exact amount of the man’s annual temple tax. In other words, he actively sought to put the person right with God. When we accuse anyone—a complaining co-worker, an unhappy spouse, or an imperfect administrator—of badness, we are stealing from their account with God. We are presuming to regulate His goodness and love.

The challenge

The story of the good Samaritan was evoked by the question about neighbors and our obligation to love them. Jesus’ message to all of us is that anytime we see anyone who is injured, we are invited to minister with all the healing means available to us. I think He even challenges us to see that those who are mad at a spouse, a child, a neighbor, or the world are also injured ones. Underneath the anger is hurt. We are invited to carry all injured souls to Him. That is the duty of every believer.
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Thanks to Barbara for her penetrating insight and welcome suggestions.

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Principles of Energy Management


Who manages your life? Wally summarizes his thoughts about the differences between time management and energy management.

Time management Energy management
I own my time and must manage it well. Power in us. God owns me and my time and I must always do His will. Power in Him.
I must make priorities and follow them. I must submit to God and His purposes.
If I use my time well, I can accomplish a lot. I recognize that I cannot do anything of myself.
By managing my time wisely, I can be successful. Rallying untapped human potential. By heeding God’s counsel, I can bless His children. Accessing underused divine power.
I need to take charge of my schedule. I need to submit my will to His.
I deserve a good life. I am less than the dust of the earth and an unprofitable servant. All that I have, all that I am, and all that I hope for are gifts from God.
Organized priorities Educated conscience: Asking God: What do I need to do?
Advance self and goals. Advance God and His purposes.
Time management may give us a well-ordered life. Submission to Jesus provides us cleansing, transformation, and eternal life.
Inventory. Prioritize. Organize. Faith. Repentance. Obedience.
Patron saint: KorihorAnd many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime. Patron saint:Joseph SmithTherefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed. D&C 123:17
God: SatanAND I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying–Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor. Moses 4:1 God: The Lord Jesus ChristBut, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me–Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever. Moses 4:2And Samuel said, Hath the LORD [as great] delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey [is] better than sacrifice, [and] to hearken than the fat of rams. 1 Samuel 15:22

*Note: This post is in response to the discussion of “Plugs in the Nurture Pipeline“.

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Energy flows


Yesterday I was studying a new, research-based program that promises to reduce stress and increase joy. Of course the developers of the program would not give the details unless a person signed up for the $299 course. I look forward to learning their key ideas–even if I do not buy the full training. I expect that their best recommendations will only reflect what the Lord has already taught us.

The Lord has provided a program that will reduce stress and increase joy. It can be summarized with 10 of His words: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not” (D&C 6:36). We are instructed to avoid doubt and fear. We are invited to focus our thoughts on Him. That is a proven formula.

This fits well with Candleman and Charmaine’s keen observations. Thanks for all who have shared on this topic.

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Plugs in the Nurture Pipeline


Today my colleague and I met with a couple of professors who lead a project that trains teachers and childcare providers to train parents to do a better job with their children. But there is a problem. The parents don’t take kindly to the teachers teaching them. They bristle.

As out conversation continued, another problem was evident. The teachers didn’t like being trained by the professors. They bristle.

As our colleagues talked, the problem was evident. No one–whether teacher, parent, or student–likes to be seen as a problem. No one wants to be treated like a nuisance, a fool, an ignoramus, or an irritation.

I had a college English teacher who said something surprisingly direct for an English teacher: “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Or, as the Lord often reminds me, I don’t have the right to correct anyone I don’t love.

We must love sincerely before we can help effectively. The trainers must genuinely care about the teachers before they can inspire them to help the parents. The teachers must genuinely care about the parents before they can inspire them to help their children. The parents must genuinely love their children before they can help them grow into healthy adulthood.

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Something Better than Self-Esteem


It is cause for serious reflection that Latter-day Saints have been as gullible with respect to self-esteem as the world in general. It has been taught by well-meaning teachers in Primary, Sunday School, Aaronic Priesthood, Young Women, and Relief Society. (In my experience, Melchizedek priesthood quorums have been rather uninterested in self-esteem.)

Did we ever wonder how to reconcile the dogmas of self-esteem with such clear messages from Jesus as:

If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 16:24–25).

The instinctive response to assaults on the self-esteem movement is commonly shock: “So, does God want us to hate ourselves?” No. He wants us to forget ourselves and follow Him.

Consider the following contrasts:

The self-esteem dogma: You cannot love anyone until you love yourself.

God’s doctrine: You cannot love anyone (with full-blown charity) until you love God.

The self-esteem dogma: When you love yourself, then you can be of service.

God’s doctrine: When you forget yourself, then you can be of service.

The self-esteem dogma: Remember your great worth.

God’s doctrine: Remember God’s goodness and the great worth of all souls to the Father of All.

The Lord has given us a program of gifts to help us to be more efficient servants. Tucked away in the Doctrine and Covenants is a reflection on spiritual gifts. We have failed to appreciate this psychological gem. As we study the section for Father’s program of “self-esteem,” it becomes immediately clear that Father’s expertise extends beyond geology and chemistry. He is an Expert in human development. Five points seem very clear in D&C 46.

1. “…to every [person] is given a gift by the Spirit of God.” (v.11)

I take the statement so literally as to believe that even God’s most handicapped children still have remarkable and god-given gifts. Everyone has a gift.

Gardner (1983) and Sternberg (1988) have written persuasively about multiple intelligences. Cal Taylor (1986) has argued for multiple talent orientations for decades. He believes that everyone excels in at least one gift.

How do we cultivate an awareness of gifts in those around us? Jesus’ example is to regularly provide us supportive hints about our divine gifts. We should do the same for others. That is part of the commandment to love one another as He loves us. Under inspiration of heaven we might reflect: “I love your cheerful spirit.” “Your sensitivity has touched my heart.” “Surely your determination is a gift from God.” “I warm my hands by the glow of your testimony.”

In homes and classrooms we uniquely honor our baptismal covenant when we speak without guile of the divine that we see in others: “comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in” (Mosiah 18:9).

2. “To some is given one, and to some is given another . . . .” (v.12)

The human tendency to try to be all things to all people may be a subtle form of idolatry. God insists that no one has every gift. Joseph Smith had different gifts from Brigham Young. Peter had different gifts from Paul.

. . . deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them (Moroni 10:8).

Susan Harter (1983) recognized one of the faults of traditional self-esteem was the assumption that it is global. The idea that you feel good about yourself or you don’t has been discredited. People need to have a more articulated sense of specific strengths. “For there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (D&C 46:11).

Rather than envy each other’s gifts, we should celebrate the gift we are given and rejoice in the gifts that are given to others. If we fail to use our gifts because we consider them inferior to someone else’s gifts then we unwise servants.

For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift (D&C 88:33).

When I talk with groups of teenagers about gifts, I invite each of them to name his or her favorite food. Then I ask them to picture a big mixer with all the favorite foods mixed together. How many would be delighted with the resulting mix of pizza, ice cream, nachos, lasagna, and cookies? If God has designed us to be cookies, we should be great cookies. If God, has designed us to be pizza, we should fill the measure of that spicy creation. “Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (Alma 29:6).

For those who are tempted to covet others’ gifts, God has given the good news in point #3: all gifts in all people belong to all of us in a community of caring and service.

3. “And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God.” (D&C 46:26)

God has not given us gifts so that we may win trophies and impress our neighbors. He has given us gifts so “that all may be profited thereby” (v.12).

A team of researchers (Allen, Philliber, Herrling, & Kuperminc, 1997) recently discovered that when they involved high-risk teens in community service, their rates of pregnancy and dropping out of school declined in spite of the fact that there was no part of the intervention that was targeted at those outcomes. The researchers were mystified. They concluded that when people are involved in service they grow in healthy ways. They are less vulnerable to psychological sickness.

God has always known the growth-promoting and healing benefits of serving and loving. When our gifts are woven together in a tapestry of caring, we are filling the measure of our creation. We are becoming more like Him.

Prophets of every era have counseled us to serve and bless one another. It is essential to our growth. When we draw family members into gladly delivering cookies, picking up litter, praying for the struggling, we are ministering to their eternal well being.

4. “seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given;” (v.8)

The Lord counsels us to keep growing. Carol Ryff’s (1989) definition of psychological well being identifies personal growth as a vital dimension. Latter-day Saints believe in eternal progress. That can apply to things as diverse as looking up answers to questions in the encyclopedia, cultivating charity, and praying for greater patience.

5. “ye must give thanks unto God in the Spirit for whatsoever blessing ye are blessed with.” (v.32)

Gratitude opens the windows of heaven. “O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!” (Mosiah 2:19). The appreciation that all gifts are a divine bestowal intended to bless all of our brothers and sisters makes the Lord’s program of gifts very different from the world’s self-esteem programs.

The Lord’s program of gifts, nestled in a neglected section of the Doctrine and Covenants, offers us a remarkable program of growth. It points us toward becoming new creatures in Christ. Assuredly, that is good.

References

Allen, J. P., Philliber, S., Herrling, S., & Kuperminc, G. P. (1997). Preventing teen pregnancy and academic failure: Experimental evaluation of a developmentally based approach. Child Development, 64, 729–742.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 275–385). New York: Wiley.

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081

Sternberg, R. J. (1988). The triarchic mind: A new theory of human intelligence. New York: Viking Press.

Taylor, C. W. (1986). The growing importance of creativity and leadership in spreading gifted and talented programs world-wide. Roeper Review, VIII, (4), 256–263.