By Matt Gordon
The Atlantic featured an interesting piece about psychopathic children. Like most things, we aren’t too sure about what causes a child to fit into this category. It seems there is a good deal of nurture involved—both in developing psychopathic tendencies and in somehow bringing about a modicum of redemption to these troubled lives. Nature is also at play and, as Adrian Raine, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, puts it, “ . . . there are times where the parents are doing the very best they can, but the kid—even from the get-go—is just a bad kid.”
What Dr. Raine is describing is a propensity for “callous and unemotional traits.”
Callous and unemotional traits. Hurting someone without feeling their hurt, without a soul-deep knowledge.
It got me to wondering what the opposite of psychopathic would be? The obvious answer would be just sort of normal. Even the article has some figure for how many children are psychopathic compared to just every other normal one of us—the number they put it at is one percent, inferring that the other ninety-nine percent are “normal.” But normal isn’t the opposite, is it? It is just the middle region on the spectrum of feels, of love, of empathy. Perhaps there is a one-percent on the other end too? The person who is forever without callousness and emotionally coupled with those around her?
I only bring this up because I know a one-percenter.
Ever have a lovely quality enter your life? Maybe you possess a jubilant laugh or the tenderest of smiles? Perhaps you learn some catchphrase over time that brings encouragement to people—you grab someone just when they need it and inspire them, “Hey! You’ve got this!”
A person may ask where you developed this skill or trait, and you cannot answer. You do not know. It just sort of graced its way into your life.
That is how it is with Ellen Nimmo.
It isn’t that she is unmemorable; rather she is the calm that comes after the storm. Sure, we remember the limb-felling tempest; it is the fodder for countless conversations. But we draw breath in the more-steady aftermath.
I knew this to be true about Ellen. Like the psychopaths, a person can just sort of feel it—a look in the eyes or something. But it took me a spell to put uninspiring words to it, for it is a thing hard to contain with mere words, lightning in a bottle, or, better still, goodness in an Arkansan mason jar.
When it really became clear to me was during a service trip to Haiti. We went to learn and serve, to impact and be impacted, and Ellen was there among us, yet wholly apart too. Her separation connected her, allowing her to sidle in wherever she was needed. A person dealing with sickness, a team-member having a moment, a Haitian needing a hug, a child pleading to be held close. Wherever need was, there she was. One had to really watch to notice it, as she didn’t announce herself or carry on. Even as she reads these words, she is likely rolling her eyes in embarrassment and full knowledge of her flaws. Oh yes, Ellen, you are flawed, mightily so. But supremely gifted too—mostly at being a supreme gift to those around you.
After working with Ellen on overlapping projects for a few years, I recruited her to join the team I’m on. Being on a team with her is sort of like the first time I visited a really large cave. It was unfathomably cool. The guide showed us all sorts of neat things—critters and moisture and stalactites and stalagmites, stalag-igniting our child-like imaginations. We finished the tour, or so we thought, and the guide asked, “Who wants to go to level two?”
There were levels and levels to that monstrous cavern—depth upon depth.
Ellen is like that.
She is so focused on others and reticent for the spotlight that, in realizing her precious layers, one feels like an explorer discovering rather than a student being lectured. The truths of her making and being come to light slowly, with a certain, durable grace.
She is more than an Arkansas gal—she’s an Alaskan one too.
She did a crazy annual run up a mountain.
She studied Anthropology.
She served drinks.
She supported her mother through a jarring cancer battle.
She is crazy about her niece.
She lived in a farmhouse.
She writes poetry.
She dismissed religion.
She found faith.
Loves nature. And horses. And, somehow, rugby.
“Who wants to go to level two?”
The depths are there for one who walks on and keeps his light on. And if he is wise, he would. For people like Ellen are the rare ones—able to ignite child-like imagination.
Callous and unemotional traits—she doesn’t have those.
What she has in spades is a constant ability to go to the depths with and for others; at their own pace and in their own way, she gently leads them along lighted paths.
Like most things, we aren’t too sure—what makes someone a someone like Ellen.
But like any good thing, we should be grateful that in a world with so little clarity, that love and empathy shine brilliantly and unmistakably through, a bright soul-deep knowledge standing unwavering against the all-about darkness.