A few years ago, Peter Mattaliano was renovating the fireplace in his fourth floor walk-up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan when he found a charred and charming letter written to Santa Claus more than a century before. A bit of research disclosed that its writer was a 10-year-old girl whose father had died.
“Dear Santa Claus: I am very glad that you are coming around tonight. My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon, which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.”
She signed it “Mary McGann” and added, “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.” Poor Mary is now long dead, but that last line, soaked with selflessness, need and loss, remains powerful still.
For children, Christmas seems to be central for their aspirations, hopes and dreams. They send off missives to the North Pole seeking toys and sometimes much more.
For adults, New Year’s seems to be the most common focal point of our personal reckoning. We make resolutions, try to plan the future and concoct schemes to improve our own impoverished lives as December begets January. But like the health clubs we join but rarely visit, our resolutions, plans and schemes, fat with promise, rarely weigh in as we’d like.
Dear Prudence, the Slate advice columnist, received this tragic and poignant letter, not altogether unlike young Mary McGann’s letter to Santa, seeking guidance rather than “something nice.”
I keep making terrible decisions and can’t seem to stop.
Last year I left my home, my family, my friends, a 20-year secure (if uninspired) career, to move 2,000 miles away to be with my first love. I’m 50 and I was his first love as well. He’s married and his wife invited me to their home. We decided to share him, although his wife and I were not interested in one another like that.
My job here fell through. My dog died. The romance flopped spectacularly. I still love him desperately. And when he told me that it was over and that he didn’t love me and never had, I begged him to reconsider, only to have his wife come in and start screaming at me to keep my f***ing hands off her f***ing husband.
I snapped. I tried to kill myself. I ended up in a coma and then went to the psych ward. I have been out for only a week. I’m back at work. I’m freshly diagnosed as bipolar I. I’m on new meds I don’t think are helping. Of course, I had to move out and I’m living a very lonely life. I do not feel stable and I cry for hours every night. The loneliness is killing me. I have psychiatric follow-up and intend to do what I can to survive and thrive.
My former boyfriend is now making noises about wanting to be ‘friends with benefits’ with me once I am ‘well again,’ which sounds more like he wants a self-supporting mistress that he can come and have sex with and then leave at will. I still love him but I realize this is a gross affront to my worth as a human being. I just don’t trust myself to say ‘no.’ Counselling may help but I still don’t trust myself to make good, healthy decisions. Everything I do blows up in my face.
Children like Mary McGann often show more restraint and common sense than their elders.
We adult humans are shockingly susceptible to bad ideas, ideas that routinely grow into poor decisions and then metastasize into behavior that may undermine, severely damage or even ruin our lives.
In the words of Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”
We share a pitiable and cracked nature desperately in need of a repair job nobody seems qualified to perform.
We’d all like to think that we’re a lot better off than this advice seeker, and most of us probably are (if not nearly so self-aware), but vanishingly few of us have a consistently good track record of decision-making and none of us is as good as we think we are.
Even when we think we’re on the straight and narrow path to success, we are prone to wander.