When You Want to Play the Button Game

When You Want to Play the Button Game

I won’t use names, just, Latin.

Earlier this century, when we lived in Connecticut, we had friends whose three-year-old twins needed to be exposed to germs gently. One had been treated for Hodgkins Disease, successfully, but her immune system had taken a beating, and she couldn’t start pre-school until it was stronger. Her sister also could not start school yet, because she would bring home the germs.

The girls had fun. Our house was full of toys they had never seen, and had four children around for them to play with. They loved my daughter, who later became their babysitter, and ignored one of my sons while doting on another. They decided, however, that there was one son whom it was okay to treat cruelly, and often hit him for no apparent reason. He was older and bigger and knew he could not strike back, so the situation was unfair.

However, this was also the son who owned the best toy in the house, the Nintendo game, which the girls called “The Button Game,” or simply “Mintendo.” They loved playing this game, and he graciously let them use it. And so the solution was clear.

“You must not hit Primus,” I told them when they had struck him and giggled. “It isn’t kind.”

The girls echoed each other in everything they said. “But we only like Secundus,” said Prima. “We only like Secundus,” said Secunda.

“That may be,” I said. “I would rather that you liked everybody. But at the very least, you cannot hit people just because you don’t like them.”

“But we want to!”

“We want to!”

“I know you do, but here’s the thing. If you hit Primus, you cannot play Nintendo. I can’t let you play with his things if you do not treat him properly.”

“But we like Mintendo!” said Secunda.

“We like the Button Game!” said Prima.

“I understand that. But if you don’t apologize, and stop hitting Primus, there will be no Button Game for you. I will just let Primus play it by himself. And all you will be able to do is watch!”

They cried. “But we like to hit Primus!” “We like to hit him!”

“That’s very sad. And if you hit him, no Nintendo.”

The conversation continued in this vein for quite some time, ending with an apology and a Button Game marathon that day, and while we had an afternoon of no Mintendo another day, eventually the hitting stopped. Playing Nintendo was more fun.

This comes to mind because for Orthodox Christians, Great Lent is starting. We begin with Forgiveness Sunday, where at the end of Sunday Vespers on the eve of the beginning of the fast, we ask each other’s forgiveness, and forgive each other. “Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives and I forgive!”

In the week to come, as we start giving up milk and prepare for the full vegan Lent to come, we think about whose forgiveness we need, and whom we need to forgive.  I was doing very well at this, I thought (and that should have warned me that something was off). Then I came down with a week-long virus, with fever, chills, and intestinal unhappiness.

While I was shaking and baking and nibbling at my BRAT diet of bananas, rice, apple sauce (I can’t have apple juice) and toast (pumpernickel, because of diabetes), I thought of other rotten things that had happend. I remembered why I gave up an extra-curricular activity I had enjoyed as a teen. It was because of him. I’ll call him Malus.

Malus was someone who had hurt me rather badly at a time in my life when I was a vulnerable teenager.  It doesn’t really matter who he is or what, specifically, he did, except to say it was inappropriate and a misues of power. (Before the fever, I might have dished all the dirt.) I complained to various people, and two of my favorite teachers gave me advice on how to avoid him, and all his drama. That stopped the problem but didn’t heal my mind.

I had forgiven a lot of people for a lot of things, but I was, so many years and so many miles away, still chewing on what Malus did when he was twice my age and should have known better.

But even in my fevered state, I realized I was chewing on an old bone when God had given me so many better things and people to contemplate. I realized that I had never shown this person mercy, not in my thoughts, not in my words, not in my actions.

I had not seen him since the last century, and here I was, carrying him around in my head, letting him loom larger than he ever had in life, and seeing only the bad he had done. I was tired of lugging this burden of judgement around with me.

And, I want to play the button game.

If I want to go to Heaven when I die, I have to forgive this person. Utterly, from the heart, and mean it.

I had thought of him as a villain in my life for so long that he had ceased to be a person to me. But to God, he is a person. Then I did some math. And I realized that at the time that our lives bumped against each other, this man was younger than half my children are today.

How lonely he must have been, to feel more powerful than no one but an awkward teenager.

And how good it was for me to learn what it felt like to be powerless. It turned me into an advocate, as I became older, for others who were being treated inappropriately and did not know where to turn.

Forgiving him does not diminish what he did, or what it did to me. But it frees me from clinging to my complaint. I am more than three times older now than I was then. I have room in my brain for only so many memories. Is this what I want my last thought to be?

One of my favorite quotations, in high school, was an Arab proverb:

“A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

I had not been a friend. And I don’t know what the grains were that his heart held. But from my own heart, at least, I could blow away the chaff and be glad for what I had survived, for friends who helped me through, for the way it taught me to find and use my voice, for the fact that I am no longer that scared teenager and never again have to be.

And I have to stop hitting him, in my thoughts and with my words, because really, I would rather play the button game. I want to go to heaven when I die. And so I have to want that for him, too, and ask forgiveness for him for what he did and for me for the way I continued to hold it.

And I have to stop calling him Malus.

Lent is a time for this, but so is any day in which we breathe.

I have been unable to find him on the internet, and that’s probably a good thing.

But I bow to the shadow in my brain in which he had been living, and ask forgiveness for imprisoning him there.

And to you, friends and readers, for all my sins of omission and commission, quick, before Lent starts, quick before we die, I ask you. Forgive me, a sinner.