A 22 year old seemingly normal middle to upper-middle-class suburban young man answers the question:
“Who do you really care about or love?” with a long pause.
In those few seconds, I hear my own judgment ( Really? You have to think about this??)
Finally, he says:
“It’s kind of a hard question…I don’t want to sound selfish, but other than caring about my own life and how to make it work and live as long as I can, the answer goes in tiers…”
He tells me ‘self’ is at the top, followed by close family members, pets, cousins and friends….
“So, you love mom and dad?” I say.
“I care for mom and dad, we get along” he says.
That snippet was somewhere in the middle of our hour-long conversation. I’ll reference it later.
First, let’s go back.
I find out in the first 2 minutes of meeting him, that Nick is a gamer.
Tells me he started playing video games almost every day of his life at about age 7.
Since then up until now, age 22, he estimates he has played, on average, 4 hours a day. He does not think there are many days that he has not.
He has a completely different approach to life, and I’ll admit – as I admitted to him at the end of our hour-long conversation – I was weirded out and startled at first by his detached, completely passionless demeanor.
I thought to myself – this is going to be the one stranger with whom I’m not going to feel any connection whatsoever, let alone compassion.
I was wrong.
When I approach him he is very amenable and calm, and agrees right away to chat. He’s soft spoken, no highs and lows in the tone of his voice or any indication of emotion.
He’s very tall. Perfect facial features if you dissect each feature one by one, yet the overall effect is that he’s just an average guy who could blend in anywhere. I wonder if he might have Greek or Italian ancestry, but when I ask him he says he’s not sure.
Before we even hit the 5 minute mark of our conversation he tells me he avoids social interactions with people – other than a couple very close friends.
Outside of that, he says “I don’t talk to people, it’s not my style”
I ask him why. What is it that makes him less social, or perhaps uncomfortable in social settings?
“Nothing really, it’s more a matter of – that’s just how my mind works, it’s how I’ve lived for so long that it’s not weird to me, but I know it’s weird to others and I’m okay with that” he says.
His mom thinks that his style of interacting with others could be seen as ‘arrogant’ or thinking he is better than others.
“Is that true?” I ask, and he smiles, “absolutely not”.
The way he says it, I do believe him.
By this time in our conversation, I’m making all kinds of assumptions – my inner chatter is saying there is no passion or enthusiasm here. But not in the way its missing in people who are depressed or sad… There’s just something off.
Rather than assuming, I ask him directly what he’s passionate about.
“ I don’t feel much in the way of passion. I only have a goal. My goal is to live simply. Get up. Go to a job I enjoy where I’m on a computer. Enjoy some time with people during the week, come home, play video games. That’s it”.
“So you’ve never had any other crazy dreams, things that light you up or that you’d like to experience?”
“It would be cool to go to space but I’ll have to wait for that” he says.
Okay, I think. He’s most interested in video gaming, so maybe it’s as simple as that. Video gaming is his passion…
I expect passion to look like enhanced gestures and facial expressions, eyes lighting up and varied vocal intonations, but that’s just me (except is it really just me??)
I’m here to keep an open mind and understand his experience, so I ask:
“What about video gaming excites you?”
He explains how there are all kinds of different experiences you can choose in video games. You can choose the level of action, the characters, the place, or a good storyline. Each game offers something different and novel.
You might be in the mood for socializing, so you play games with others. What he means by ‘others’ is virtually, with complete strangers.
“It’s very enjoyable” he says.
He explains all of this in a very cerebral, matter-of-fact way and all the visuals are once again, not at all suggestive of someone describing something enjoyable to them.
No genuine connection with others. No real physical presence around others. He doesn’t have many friends outside of the gaming world, but he does socialize -sometimes- at school. He says others would say he’s a nice guy, but he just doesn’t go out of his way to make friends.
STILL…I’m keeping an open mind.
I move on from the discussion about video games, and ask him what the worst thing is that has ever happened to him.
There really isn’t anything. After a while he says the only thing he can come up with is that his family moved from one suburb to another, where they still live now, when he was a child. He says it was difficult because he left a couple friends behind. .
I ask him if was ever bullied. He says he was, but that since he didn’t react or pay much mind to it, the bully is more likely to have felt like a failure.
I ask him pointblank, “when does your heart come out, when do you feel emotional, if ever?”
He chuckles, which is a relief.
He was frustrated with the last Star Wars movie. The animated feature that everyone is talking about, “Coco”, brought tears to his eyes. (I’ve heard that movie is a tear-jerker).
That is when I ask, “tell me who you love”… Back to the snippet of conversation with which I started this article.
He’s a kind of person I’ve read about or only seen bits and pieces of in exaggerated fictionalized forms, but never believed could present himself in real life in front of me looking perfectly… normal (I know I know… what’s normal?).
He is so easy to talk to, and nice…and yet totally detached.
Perhaps I still don’t believe it. Maybe, I think, he just refuses to let on that he has deep or meaningful feelings.
Maybe he has been hurt so badly that he’s shut himself off and escaped into a virtual world. Maybe it was that move he described, when he was a kid and had to leave a couple friends… it traumatized him somehow. Could that be it?
I ask Nick if ever feels really sad, overwhelmed, or depressed. Nope. Has he ever? Nope.
“What’s the greatest power in the world?” I ask him.
The greatest power in the world, according to Nick, is not love, hope, beauty, money… It’s “the mind and ones own thoughts”.
Most people, he says, get very down on themselves or take others opinions too seriously.
He won’t allow himself to entertain thoughts that aren’t helpful to him. If he makes a mistake, he lets it go.
Great. If only I knew how to make it that easy. I know how to observe my thoughts and challenge those that aren’t helpful. I do it all the time.
Not always successfully.
Because I’m human. And frankly, I don’t want to shut out powerful emotions, like Nick seems to be doing.
Part of managing your mind is that you can experience a wide spectrum of emotions without letting your unhelpful thoughts hijack your better judgment.
I ask him if he thinks he might have turned out different if he hadn’t been exposed to video games at such an early age.
“Probably….slightly” he says. He agrees that he may have turned out more sociable, but says he was a quiet and shy child anyways.
The bottom line, is that Nick says he is very content with who he is and what he’s doing.
But I can’t help feeling bad for him.
A world without much connection…. seems like it would be missing so much joy.
I’m creating a story in my head that in the name of controlling his mind, he’s missing out on joy, passion, enthusiasm, connection, relationships, love…which may or may not be true.
Maybe someday he will feel the absence of these things. Who knows..
Maybe feeling ‘content’ really is good enough for him. He says it is. He obviously enjoys video games. That’s a feeling.
Nearing the end of our conversation, I tell him I have to ask him something at the risk of sounding critical or judgmental. I want to understand, and I think he can handle it.
“Has anyone ever told you that you seem detached, unemotional, and kind of robotic?”.
Nick chuckles. No one has ever said that to him, although his mom bugs him about being so aloof. The people with whom he socializes, and those who know him well know that:
“I have emotions and feelings and I care about people, but I just understand how to manage myself and keep things in check” he says.
I ask him what made him agree to talk to me, a total stranger. Seems so out of character for him.
He agrees, but says I evoked his curiosity, and he wasn’t doing anything else anyways…
Is he glad we spoke? “Yeah, it was interesting” he says, although he asked me nothing in return.
I’ll take it. I know there was a mutual feeling of connection whether he would acknowledge it or not. I don’t know that I totally understand him, but I did feel for him.
Here’s the funny part.
A couple of days later I am in the same bookstore, and I see Nick come in the door from afar. As he’s walking in my direction he sees me, makes a sharp detour and moves in a direction that is as far from me as possible.
I forgot to assure him that I would not approach or try to socialize with him again, and that if he sees and ignores me, Im okay with that.
What do you think? Are video games and technology responsible for our state of disconnectedness? Is Nick that unusual or are we going to see more and more people like him?