4 Heartwarming Stories That Aren’t Really Heartwarming At All

Why do these people think we love stories of miserable children?
4 Heartwarming Stories That Aren’t Really Heartwarming At All

The news keeps telling me about sad children, and I don’t like it. Sometimes, they’re reporting a newsworthy tragedy, and they’re right to inform me about this, whether I enjoy hearing it or not. Other times, however, this miserable story is supposed to make me happy. They frame the tragedy as a prelude to triumph — but it’s a meager and exaggerated triumph, which serves only to highlight how sad the original story was.

I do not experience “all the feels” upon hearing these stories. I experience a few specific feels. Rather than feeling fuzzy and warm, I feel frazzled and heated when I hear that...

A Prank Victim Gets a Target Shopping Spree

The Story: Three men approached eight-year-old Gabe Lyles at a Target this past summer. Singling him out because they saw his hearing aid and concluded he was deaf, they told him they represented YouTuber Mr. Beast. They blindfolded Gabe and his father, telling them to fill their cart with whatever they could, and Mr. Beast would foot the bill. The men didn’t represent Mr. Beast at all; they were just pranking the boy. But when the community heard the story, they donated some money, and Target matched it, and so Gabe got a shopping spree after all. “How quickly your day can change with a little kindness,” concludes the news story. 

Target store

Robert T Bell

Targeted Kindness, coming to the Hallmark Channel this Christmas 

But Wait…: Screw you, news, for forcing me to know this horrible story. Gabe emerged from the ordeal with some Nerf guns, but that doesn’t cleanse my mind of the image of these bros blindfolding a deaf child and watching him bump into shelves while failing to navigate a toy aisle. And I realize I’ve now forced you to know the story and to picture Gabe and his father’s faces as they realize they were tricked, but at least I’m not pretending this is a happy tale. 

“It made me feel heartwarming and happy,” said Gabe. I presume he was prompted to say this, because what kid says they “feel heartwarming”? No one feels heartwarming. A story is heartwarming (or at least the news report claims it is). 

I’m also picturing the people at Target discussing this whole thing.

Assistant: So, about that prank with the deaf kid. The town of Southington put together a donation, and they want us to match it.
Boss: Oh no. How much?
Assistant: Two hundred dollars.
Boss: Oh! Phew, that’s not a lot of money for us to have to put up.
Assistant: Actually, it’s not money. They bought a Target gift card, and they want to know if we’ll donate one, too.
Boss: A Target gift card... which he can only spend at Target?
Assistant: That’s right.

Paul Hermann

They’ll spend $40 on toys and $360 on dad stuff.

Boss: So, we’re not really donating $200, are we? We’re offering a 50 percent discount on a purchase of $400?
Assistant: That’s if he spends the exact balance on the cards. Factor in the profit margin on these toys, and this might actually make us money.
Boss: And in return, we get a national news story about how awesome Target toys are? Corporate is going to get such a kick out of this.

A Make-A-Wish Kid Wishes to Feed the Homeless for a Year

The Story: Two years ago this week, Make-A-Wish put together an event for 13-year-old Abraham Olagbegi. Abraham, though not terminally ill, had undergone a risky bone marrow transplant, which qualified him for a visit from the foundation that makes dreams come true. He didn’t ask to fly to Paris or to shoot a bear. He instead asked to feed the homeless of Jackson, Mississippi for one year. What a selfless wish. Faith in humanity restored!

But Wait…: First, let’s get one thing out of the way: Wishes from 13-year-olds with aplastic anemia are not a practical way of solving homelessness. I won’t elaborate, because if you’d like a deeper dive into that, we previously did a whole article on this brand of pseudo-inspirational story, where larger widespread problems persist. So, let’s set aside whether homelessness continues to exist (of course it does). If Make-a-Wish really fed the homeless for a year, that’s still a pretty big deal, isn’t it? Except, they couldn’t do that. 

The average cost of delivering a wish was $11,000, as of a few years ago; Make-A-Wish doesn't share a more recent figure than that. Even with some of that vanishing as administrative costs, that leaves plenty to give a child a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but doing something for a person for an entire year on that budget is trickier. Doing something for lots of people for an entire year on that budget is impossible. So, what Make-A-Wish did was arrange one event where Abraham could serve 80 meals in a park. They pledged to continue this for one Saturday a month for the next year, which arguably does count as doing it “for a year,” though “12 meals” doesn’t sound as impressive. 

U.S. Navy

Once a month is good, but even you and your friends could probably manage that.

Local churches and businesses paid for the food. After organizing the first meal, Make-A-Wish spoke to the news about future meals, saying sponsors had “already supplied two servings.” That’s a rather modest donation to report on. 

Abraham, however, saw no need to limit himself to whatever Make-A-Wish could facilitate. He opened a GoFundMe to pay for meals in 2022, 2023 and beyond. While most GoFundMe campaigns fail in obscurity, Abraham had quite an advantage, in that the national news had shared his story. Two years into this fundraiser, it has reached less than 4 percent of its funding goal

Maybe that’s for the best. If this endeavor succeeds, that’s a huge jerk move actually, because it now makes every other Make-A-Wish child look bad. (I kid, I kid. Keep doing the Lord’s work, Abraham.) 

Whole Town Rallies to Make Bullied Girl the Homecoming Princess

The Story: A school in West Branch, Michigan, nominated Whitney Kropp to the homecoming court in 2012. Then Whitney learned the other kids had picked her as a prank. She spent the whole night crying. She became suicidal. Her sister, however, shared her story with the world. A Facebook page supporting her got thousands of likes. Businesses gave her a free dress and a makeover. She attended the homecoming ceremony after all and was crowned princess. 

But Wait…: I’m not here to mock popularity contests. To the people who place importance on them, they’re exactly as important as they seem. But surely whatever pleasures come from winning such a contest are canceled out if the winner knows they are not really popular? Is being hailed online as a bullied teen an enjoyable experience? If anything, mightn’t the online attention multiply what humiliation the original prank offered? That’s if the original prank was even that humiliating; I wonder if the story has left out some details that make it worse than it sounds, maybe involving pig’s blood. 

Is that really a dream scenario, winning a contest because of pity after being thrust into the national spotlight? And if you haven’t been preparing for this role for a long time, do you even have the diplomatic experience necessary to represent the monarchy in matters of state?

Dying Kid Gets to Watch the New Pixar Movie

The Story: Colby Curtin had vascular cancer, and in 2009, she was 10 years old and dying. That year, she saw Monsters Vs. Aliens, which came with a trailer for the next Pixar movie. She looked forward to watching it. A month later, the plan was for the hospice to provide a wheelchair to take her to the theater to see the new film, but that didn’t work out. Soon, she couldn’t leave her room. But her mother managed to get in touch with Pixar, who sent someone over with a DVD. Colby got to watch the movie after all. She had been fighting to stay alive just to see this movie, and thanks to Pixar, she died with this wish fulfilled. 


Phil Hearing

“Can we burn a Blu-ray?”
“There’s not enough time, dammit!”

But Wait…: That movie was Up. It was the saddest possible movie for her.

My issue here isn’t with the famous opening segment of Up. That’s the part everyone talks about when they call Up a tearjerker, and it’s the best-remembered part, and it’s the best part, but though it’s sad, it’s only as sad as it intends to be. I’m instead referring to the message of the film, as delivered by the emotional climax. This is a scene sometimes called the Pixar Moment, the part in many Pixar films where the hero learns their entire quest was pointless and discovers what truly matters.

Carl has spent most of the movie journeying to Paradise Falls in South America, fulfilling a dream of his late wife Ellie, who always wanted to go there but never did. Finally reaching there feels hollow. He opens Ellie’s “adventure book” (a scrapbook where she planned to document a life of travel) and discovers that she did fill it, with photos from their many decades married to each other. She didn’t achieve that one dream of hers, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the long fulfilling time she spent just being a normal person and growing old.

To an old person watching this movie, Up offers an inspiring message. They’ll look back at their own life, which might be unremarkable but had plenty of satisfying moments, spread across many years. Most young people will feel inspired, too. Their future life may or may not offer wild adventures, but the simple joys of adulthood will be good as well. Those in the middle of their lives also take from this a positive lesson. They might reassess what path they’re on, and the guidance on what’s truly rewarding may spare them from a midlife crisis. 

But when you are 10 years old and dying, “All that matters are the many years you spent with your loved ones” is not an uplifting message. You never got to have those many years with your loved ones. If you were struggling to stay alive to watch this movie, watching it was your Paradise Falls, and Up is telling you that’s hollow. Something else matters, and you’ll never have it.

Doug up

Walt Disney Pictures

But at least the movie had a funny dog!

This story was treated as more heartwarming in the retelling, particularly among Pixar fans back when the company was untouchable. I’m convinced the original reporters were aware this was pure tragedy. The original report notes that the mother didn’t know the plot of the movie before they watched it, and says that as part of a goodie bag, Pixar sent Colby her own adventure book she could fill up. “I’ll have to fill those adventures in for her,” said her mother. 

Colby died seven hours after watching Up. Her last thoughts must have been, “Wow, life looks good. I wish I got to live it.” 

If only she’d asked for an advance DVD of Twilight: New Moon instead. Bella picks Edward in that one, it’s wonderful.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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