Karolyn Sherwood, Author

The Pinball Game Called Life

Personality Pinball

“Step right up, little ladies and lads, and play the pinball game called Life. Test yer skills to find out who you’ll be when you’re all growed up. Will ye be a teacher, a doctor, President of the U-nited States—or an outlaw bad as Jesse James hisself?”

I have a theory about life: When a child is born, it’s like she’s been shot into a pinball game, bouncing off this comment, garnering points for that inspiring teacher, bonus points for choosing wise and loving parents, or possibly falling into the vortex of bad luck. Game over! Everything that happens to a person—particularly a vulnerable child with a blank slate—affects who she will become as an adult. Some parents smother their babies with love, others smother their babies with pillows. Most parents, though, try to guide their children delicately into caring and inquisitive adolescents. Then, Heaven help us, they start middle school and meet other teenagers. We hope by that point that their scoreboard shows they’re off to a solid start in the pinball game of Life.

This theory helps explain why we remember only certain days or moments from our past. No one remembers the days before they could talk because they didn’t have words to assign to the memories. But once we have language, why don’t we remember everything we’ve ever experienced? The mundane stuff fades away, and what we’re left with is the highs and lows, the Bonus Point days, to carry on the analogy, or the Tilt days, if you will. The brain can hold only so much, so these memories become the factors that shape who we are and how well we respond to what life throws our way.

One stellar example is the biracial child from a shotgun marriage who grew up to be the most powerful man in the world. What did he hear, what did he experience, what is the one comment that someone made at the very moment he was most open to hearing it that propelled him into the White House?

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

I have four sons who are all wonderful human beings. But my sons, born less than six years apart, could not be more different as adults. What exactly did each of them hear, see and experience that turned them into the individuals they are today? How is it possible that they’re so different from each other? It’s possible because every child gets his or her own New Game.

My theory can also be used to understand strange or unique behaviors in others. The shy coworker? The angry neighbor? It’s easy to dismiss people as odd or rude, but often when you get to know a person, if they open up about their life or childhood it can help explain why they behave the way they do. Were they ridiculed by their parents, given too much or too little attention? Their pinball game shaped them the way yours shaped you. It has even become a cliché: psychiatrists often begin their analysis of a new patient with questions about her childhood.

And this leads us to the fact that Personality Pinball can be applied retrospectively. Our parents are our primary role models in life. And who did they emulate? Their parents, of course, with knowledge and experiences from two generations ago. No wonder all parents seem so backward to their children! It’s not until a woman becomes a mother herself that she realizes how difficult it is to be a parent—as well as how much our mothers love us. A new mom’s romantic ideals of “how to be the perfect parent” often dissolve to dust the first time their two-year old dissolves into tears in the check-out line at Target. That’s when, I believe, our earliest teachings surface, and the game begins again. The beauty is, though, it doesn’t have to. The moment a person realizes she isn’t a puppet but the puppet master, is a gift. When we are able to isolate specific values and behaviors from our childhood, we can add or remove those features from our children’s pinball machines. If our own parents yelled or hit us, if they were too strict or too lenient, we can consciously choose to eliminate those options from our family’s arcade.

Parents cannot nor should they strive to control every moment of their children’s lives. It might be nice, though, if young parents were taught how the pinball game called Life really works. And with any luck, if we learn to forgive our parents for embarrassing us throughout high school, maybe one day our kids will forgive us.

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