It was moving day. We were leaving our little, loop-around street and moving to the Windover Oaks apartment complex in Titusville, Florida. Now, the idea of moving conjures images of heavy lifting, carefully boxing up half of the house, haphazardly boxing up the other, and realizing that it's been six months since we moved and a lot of it remains in boxes. To eight-year-old me, it meant walking down the street one final time to say goodbye to my friends.
"Friends" may be too strong of a word, because I can't recall what their names were or even what they looked like. We played together because we each had things the others wanted. All of us had Super Nintendo, so it was my Sega Genesis that provided my social currency.
One of these friends was a little girl, slightly younger than me, whose back yard bordered ours. She didn't really like video games, but it was mildly entertaining to talk to her if I was sufficiently bored. She wasn't home, so she received no farewell.
Next was the boy across the intersection where one side of our road ended. We would play Tiny Toons on the SNES together. He also had a Super Game Boy cartridge that we used to play Game Boy games on the TV and not waste batteries. It was rad.
"I'm moving across town."
Short and simple.
A few doors down from Super Game Boy was Power Rangers. Most of the games he had overlapped with the previous kid's, but he wasn't a sore loser. He had chicken pox, so there was no goodbye for him, either.
I crossed one more intersection and knocked on Mega Man's door. One of his older brothers answered and let me in. My mom had never met his family, so I wasn't supposed to go in. My fondness of the blue bomber won out over obedience, so I had been inside quite a few times before. In fact, this boy had never been to my house, so I wasn't sure what he was getting out of the "friendship."
He greeted me.
"I'm moving across town today."
He didn't give a one-word reply like Super Game Boy. His reply had no words, at all. Much to my surprise, but more to my dismay, he embraced me and started crying. For a few awkward moments, I stood there trying to figure out what brought on this reaction.
None of us were into sports or any other kind of real physical activity. We were also all kind of wimpy. We had never wrestled or taken part in any other kind of roughhousing. This hug very well could have been the first time we had ever made physical contact.
His brothers were looking. I was embarrassed. Mega Man's sobs were becoming stronger, not dying out. I was uncomfortable. I was confused. Why is he hugging me? Why is he crying? Then I was crying and hugging him back. I couldn't explain that, either. We stood in his living room, holding each other in a mutual death-grip and expending at least eighty percent of the moisture in our bodies through our tear ducts.
I don't remember saying goodbye.
I crossed the road to head home, my eyes red but no longer stinging with tears. He had never played my games, never even seen them. Why was he so upset that I was leaving? If it wasn't because of the stuff I had, then it had to be because of...me? He would actually miss me?
That didn't make sense. I only had worth to my "friends" because of what I gave them access to. That's also what gave them worth to me: entertainment when I was bored, Super Game Boy, Power Rangers, Mega Man. But I wasn't Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis to him.
I could feel the sting returning. I stumbled home, barely able to see or catch my breath. I had a real friend, someone who saw value in me, not in what I could offer him. But I didn't realize it until it was too late.
Although I could not articulate it at the time, the lesson I took away was that people should be more than just what they can offer you. Sadly, I could not apply this to myself. I had to be of use; I had to be perfect; I had to give my things or my self to have even a chance of being tolerated in someone else's life, much less welcomed in it.
A couple years later, I started watching a cartoon called Adventures from the Book of Virtues. This show used stories from the Bible, literature and mythology to teach moral lessons to kids. It was clearly aimed at kids that were younger than me, but I was fascinated by the stories being used. The Minotaur, the man/bull hybrid, from the episode about Icarus was particularly interesting to me. I read what I could about the Minotaur, eventually branching out into other Greek myths.
That's how I originally learned about Narcissus.
Narcissus was said to be an extremely attractive hunter that loved himself so much that he couldn't spare any for others. When he saw his own reflection in a pool of water, he became so obsessed that he couldn't pull away. Depending on the telling, he either starved to death or committed suicide because he was unable to have a relationship with himself.
This myth stuck with me, primarily because I could not fully wrap my mind around the concept of loving yourself that much, of being that self-absorbed. When I saw my own reflection, I certainly did not love the person staring back. On most days, I hated him.
Superficially, I wished that I could scrub away my ugly clumps of freckles and permanently change my red hair. I wanted to punch anyone that made a comment about "angel kisses" or told me that I should feel lucky that I didn't have to get my hair color out of a bottle. No, instead it came from a pedophile.
But it was more than that. I knew that this anger and violence was always in me, just below the surface, that my best attempts to be the perfect little boy people wanted me to be was nothing but an act. Try as I might to hide it, I was just as ugly on the inside.
One day in sixth grade, just after I finished brushing my teeth, I made eye contact with myself in the mirror. Without making a decision to, without realizing what I was doing, I started clawing at my own face, growling in anger as I did.
In the mirror, I could see the marks I had left and the faint smear of blood on my cheek. It was the only time I've been thankful to have a problem with biting my fingernails. It was also the first time I worried that I might be insane. I washed my face off and left for school.
No one at school asked me what had happened, so I thought I was in the clear. My mother, of course, noticed.
"What happened to your face?"
"My bike's brakes locked up on the way to school this morning, and I fell into a thorn bush." I was a little proud of my spontaneous, believable lie but mostly ashamed. The next morning, I thought of that shame when I saw the marks on my face. As punishment, I made a few more.
Sometimes, I tried to stop myself. Sometimes, I would succeed. Most of the time, I felt I was just too much of a coward to give myself the punishment I really deserved.
I had been using my bike's falsely faulty brakes as an excuse for a while. People were starting to ask me why I didn't just walk to school. Finally, my mother took my bike to be inspected, only for them to find no reason for my brakes to be locking up. I knew that my excuse was wearing thin, but I couldn't abandon it without making at least one part of it true.
As I rode through K-Mart's parking lot on the way to school, I stood up on my pedals and pushed as hard and fast as I could. When I felt I was going as fast as I could manage, I pulled the handbrakes.
My front tire stopped. The back tire lifted into the air. The handbrakes jerked out of my grip as I flew over them. I saw the ground approaching. If there's a merciful God, please just let me die.
My right eyebrow and cheekbone hit the pavement first, followed by both of my palms. My helmet was now attached to the back of my head instead of the top. I wanted to lay there forever. Just let me die.
"Oh, my! Are you all right?" I started pushing myself up and saw the two ladies who handed out religious pamphlets and tried to convert me and the rest of the middle schoolers when we cut through the parking lot on the way to school. "Look at your face!"
I was almost to my feet on my own, but one of the ladies grabbed my arm to help me up. I jerked it away from her. "Don't touch me!" I was starting to cry. I still don't know if it was from the unexpected contact, the pain, or the despair that caused both of them. Without saying another word, I picked up my bike and rode the rest of the way to school.
My home room teacher immediately sent me to the nurse. I had road rash down the right side of my face, and both my palms were raw. As I blamed my bike throughout the day, I finally realized that something had to change. It wasn't worry that I would hurt myself worse, it was the fear that someone would finally figure out that it was me that way faulty, not my bike.
That night, I lied again. "I don't know why they weren't able to find anything wrong with my bike. Maybe they missed something." I walked to school after that. With my scapegoat gone, my desire to not be caught won out over the urge to hurt myself. But the urge was still there.
The paper in my hands was covered with lies. "Anointing for hurt youth." "Mighty mentor paired with a willing servant's heart." "Great role model for our kids."
As a team building exercise, the teachers at Trinity Christian Academy had been asked to pass around papers with the names of all the other teachers and write one good thing about the person on them. At the end, each of us was given the sheet with our name, now covered with the thoughts of our fellows.
Mine did not line up at all with how I saw myself. These people didn't know me, but that was my own fault. How could I expect them to see the real me when I only ever showed them the person I wanted to be and not the person that I was?
But I wanted them to be right. I wanted to be the person they were describing. Their words meant the world to me, but I knew with everything in me that they weren't real, that they didn't really apply. So I put the paper away in a drawer to be forgotten.
But I couldn't forget it. Every time I felt like a failure, I also felt the urge to fish the paper out of its drawer. I fought against this, told myself that it was better not to feed into what I knew wasn't true. I would read verses I had read so many times before that speak about our worth to God, but I was finding ways to rationalize believing what I did about myself in opposition to these fairly straightforward claims.
I finally saw that a part of me thought that I knew myself better than God and that my judgment was more correct than his.
I began to pace in my room, trying to work through and weigh this revelation. I made eye contact with myself in the mirror. Moving closer to the image I had hated for so long, I thought of Narcissus. He abandoned the world around him because he was so preoccupied with himself. I had been doing something similar. Instead of beauty, my obsession was with every blemish, every bruise, every imperfection that I saw within myself.
Even worse, my twisted, hidden pride had convinced me that my opinion of myself was the only one that mattered. I retrieved the paper and read the words of the other teachers while constantly wiping tears from my eyes. My imperfections were real, but they were not the full picture.
These people saw worth in me. God saw worth in me. Who was I to say that they were wrong?