This morning, I got up, checked my Post Office box in town, had Red jump into the back seat, stopped to get a cup of coffee, and drove to Wal-Mart in Bennington, Vt. to return a $400 purchase of some games and a Nintendo Switch, one of the latest iterations of the now iconic Nintendo Game Player.
I was buying this as a surprise for a shy young man whose family has little money, whose father is not there, and who has yearned for a game player ever since he first saw one.
This is not something his mother could possibly do. They live in my town.
I give him some books from time to time, and I thought this would a great gift for a boy his age, something that would alter the narrative of his life, perhaps. For young boys, the Game Player is more than a toy, it’s rite of passage.
I have a soft spot for needy children, or children I think might be needy, because I was one, and my sister was one, and we never seemed able to get anybody to pay attention to the very painful struggles we were having. Eventually, I had to break down, and it took me a good while, but I did.
Ever since, I’ve tried to help children who need some help.
I don’t mention my meltdown to draw pity or lament my life, it was, in so many ways, the best thing that ever happened to me. I woke up to my life.
I learned to face the reality of myself and my life, and I began to find almost all of the things I always wanted in life but had not been able to find: love, peace of mind, the creative freedom to write what I wanted, and the strength to stop lying to myself.
Towards the end of my breakdown, I gave just about all of my money to a young man and his family that I thought I could save and should save. It was an awful lot of money. As the therapists say, I gave too much, he took too much. We were both using the other.
Needless to say I did not save him, and have not seen him or spoken to him or his family since. I lost almost all of my savings, and what he didn’t get, my divorce did. I have no idea what has happened to him.
Necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to self-awareness.
What, might you ask, does this have to do with a Nintendo Play Station?
Well, when I told my therapist a decade ago the story of how I gave all my money away to a young man and his family, and had no more money, she looked at me and wagged her finger, and said, “you’ve lost perspective.” I believed her.
Ever since then, I’ve been working on perspective, mostly by facing the truth about myself and writing the truth about myself. My concern for other people is rigidly bounded now, I am no longer in the business of saving lives, especially not with other people’s money. Instead, I choose to just do some good.
A long-time reader of the blog from California send me a check for $700 a week ago and said I should do anything I wanted with it, use it to help anyone I thought could use some help.
I bought some things for the refugees, and some equipment for Bishop Maginn off of their Wish List. There was a few hundred dollars left and I thought it would be wonderful to give this shy and quiet boy the gift he had always said he wanted, and I was sure, would love.
I thought his mother would try to dissuade me – she never asks for anything – so I was just going to go out and buy it and present it as a surprise. I was sure she would be happy.
This is not typical of the current version of me, but it had echoes of the old me – grandiosity, delusion, loss of perspective, a kid I assumed must be needy, a strong desire to help.
Four hundred dollars is a lot of money to give someone you hardly know, who is not your family, and without a thorough and honest discussion with a parent or family member.
I rationalized it by saying it would be a wonderful gift, a great surprise, it would draw friends like flies, it would introduce this boy to the digital and Internet world, something everyone needs to learn, especially country kids with little access to the Internet. Without realizing what I was doing, I started fantasizing about how grateful he would be, how much it would mean to him, how noble I would feel.
Put another way, this was a sure recipe for not doing it. This was about me, not him.
I had some discomfort about it, but that familiar excitement was there, that wheel of rationales. I thought, well this kid is needy too, I’m helping refugees and Mansion residents, why not a kid in the country who could use some connecting? You don’t have to be a refugee to be needy.
I am very scrupulous – almost anal – about spending donations and contributions in precisely the way people want me to. I drive people crazy making certain of that. I take photos of just about everything I do so that people can see where their money goes.
I messaged the donor of the $700 check and asked what she thought about this Nintendo business. She answered me promptly, and said it would be fine for me to do that, I should use the money in whatever way I wished. It sounded great.
She said she had been reading me for years, she trusted me completely.
So I drove over to Wal-Mart, found the Switch, bought it along with two games, so he would have something play on it right away. The cashier asked me who it was for, and I told her the story, and she clasped my hand and said, “God Bless, what a wonderful thing to do.”
A woman waiting in line behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said “what a generous thing to do. What a lucky boy.”
I had that sweet old Jesus feeling again. I brought my bag out to the car and started plotting my surprise.
The thing is, I really have changed. I’ve written this before, but the good thing about my mental illness is that you get to recover every day, and I have seen too many people who will never recover from their illnesses not to appreciate that.
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling uneasy, uncomfortable, with a knot in my stomach that I hadn’t felt in some years. I didn’t feel right, I didn’t feel good, I didn’t feel easy. If I have learned nothing else this past decade, it is this: trust my instincts. When the subconscious is telling me something, I listen. As the therapist said, the minute you feel uncomfortable, run, get out, get away.
I sat up and knew right away this unease was about the Nintendo Switch. I was uncomfortable about it, and I saw why sitting their in the darkness.
First off, I thought, it was too large a gift to give a child I barely knew. It lacked perspective, it was grandiose, more than a simple, thoughtful gift.
If I wanted to do this, I should wait until I had some of my own money to spare, and then I should talk to his mother about it, to make sure she was comfortable with it, and that it wouldn’t disrupt her relationship with her son, the two are very close. Nintendo Game Players don’t bring happiness any more than money does.
If I got through all of that, I should wait until Christmas or his birthday, or some other appropriate time.
But even then, I thought, this gift seemed over the top to me. The boy had a caring mother, was well-cared for and loved, was not desperate or traumatized like so many of the refugee children, or in great need, like the Mansion residents.
Technologies like the Ipad or Game Station can be profoundly disruptive, and was it my role to do that, to make that choice for him and for his mother? I knew the answer. No.
I thought of the perspective I had been working so hard to learn and understand and maintain. I thought of the boundaries I had worked so hard and conscientiously to construct.
I thought of all the money I had given away a decade ago, all of it lost or spent or wasted. I thought of the Christ complex I had used to rationalize my behavior – my friends kept telling me I was Christic, then a great compliment to me. I wanted to believe it.
But the things I bring to people have to come out of their need, not my need, and I am well aware I have to separate the two. I depend on others – teachers, social workers, friends, Maria – to guide my choices about who to help.
The good thing about being messed up is that you have the chance to get right every single day, and the strongest motive for working hard at it. I am never going back.
This morning, right after stopping at the Post Office, I was quite clear about what to do. There was no drama, no confusion.
I drove straight to the Wal-Mart in Bennington, and I returned the Nintendo Switch and got all my money back.
The money sits in the Mansion/Refugee account, where I it will surely not remain for long. I think I may buy the first two new laptop computers for the Bishop Maginn High School. Lots of needy kids will benefit from that. Or maybe pay off the bill for the Mansion boat ride in September, it has $300 due on it.
I’ll ask the boy’s mother when his birthday is – he is an awfully nice kid and a voracious reader. I’ll buy him some of the series books he loves to read them with his mother.
They cost $5.95 each, and I’ll buy three, a packaged set. He will love them, she will love reading with him.
This lucky boy brought the last few books I bought him into school and showed them off to his class. He was proud to have read them.
I bet no one has ever done that with a Nintendo Game Player.