When I was in elementary school, I won a contest. It was a Pokémon contest — the only kind that mattered in those days — and I’d been awarded my very own Surfing Pikachu.
Not like a real-life creature or anything. Not a stuffed animal or a magnet or an action figure. I’d essentially won a pile of pixels, some downloadable content back before that was a thing.
Back before people could download content.
What I needed to do back then relied on the postal service. I popped my copy of “Pokémon Yellow” into the mail, sent it off to Nintendo HQ and waited weeks and weeks and weeks for them to return my moderately improved game.
But man, when I got that cartridge back and popped it into my Gameboy: Wow. Pikachu, a lightning Pokémon, suddenly had water powers. Insane. There was even this little sequence with the surfboard.
What a contest. What a world.
Gotta catch ‘em all! That’s the classic Pokémon slogan. And in the intervening twenty-some years, the number of Pokémon to catch has only grown. Dramatically.
But do we? Do we really need to catch all of them?
It’s like they say: If you want to be the very best – like no one ever was – then to catch them is your real test, and to train them is your cause. (And by they I mean the lyrics from the original Pokémon theme song.)
Here’s the thing: You might say, “Eric — you’re talking about a video game series based on collecting monsters that fit in your pocket. That’s the definition of fantastical. And it’s irrelevant to the spiritual life.”
And to that I say, “Hold my Pokédex.”
The game’s premise insists you have to catch every single Pokémon to be successful, even though you can only actually travel with six (at least, when I played the game). The goal of the game is to collect more of these critters than you can even realistically put to use. The goal is to have too much.
And they sit and collect Pokédust.
A Pokémon Master, it would seem, is someone good at acquiring way more than they know what to do with. A Pokémon Master is someone trapped by a quest for fulfillment, affirmation and happiness somewhere out there.
After all, if Nintendo has taught us anything, there are always more Pokémon to collect.
I’ve been reading “The Way to Love” (1991) by the late Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello. He has nothing kind to say about these Pokéhabits, this unnatural urge to catch ‘em all. Tying our happiness, our self-worth to these silly societal norms is unhelpful to our spiritual health.
Attachments distract us from the fact that God has already placed within us what we need. It’s on us to let go of what gets in the way.
Of this self-imposed, never-ending quest for more in the name of happiness, de Mello writes that such things “can only offer you a temporary thrill, a pleasure that initially grows in intensity, then turns into pain if you lose them and into boredom if you keep them.” (163)
He’s not just talking about Pokémon. He’s talking about everything: relationships, jobs, titles, wealth and honors. All these things that we put such value on, that we invest so much of our energy and time in chasing because we think they will give us happiness. The problem, de Mello says, is that we put the pressure of our own identity onto this other thing, this other person.
Instead of looking within, we look outwards. We compare, we judge, we criticize – ourselves and others. Is it any wonder we always look to the next “best” thing?
Surfing Pikachu was a ton of fun, but I have no idea where my copy of Pokémon Yellow is today. The quest of the Pokémon Master is a lie: We don’t need to catch them all to be our very best. We don’t need to chase down the proverbial Pokémon of our own lives — power, privilege and possessions.
Those Pokémon, in fact, have nothing to do or say about who we actually are. It doesn’t matter how many you catch; you have to look within to discover your very best.
God is already at work within you, delighting.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.