When you meet someone who’s been told they don’t matter, give them a chance to matter

When you meet someone who’s been told they don’t matter, give them a chance to matter July 7, 2013

I’ve been thinking about this post from Richard Beck since he posted it on Friday.

Beck is a professor of psychology, and he starts off with an unremarkable psychological observation: “We all want to matter. To be the focus of respect, esteem and interest.”

True enough, but not exactly revelatory. But Beck, as he often does, explores what this means and teases out pastoral and prophetic implications.

He doesn’t use those words — “pastoral” and “prophetic.” That’s seminary-speak for the same idea conveyed in the unofficial motto of journalists, preachers and stand-up comedians: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The former is what we mean by pastoral. The latter is prophetic. Richard Beck’s discussion of “Mattering” pulls off the tricky feat of doing both at the same time. I think this is a significant post about significance, an important post about importance, etc.

Let’s consider the pastoral side first, because Beck starts there:

What if it is hard to matter? What if you have nothing in your life that commends you to others? What if you aren’t successful, don’t have a job, don’t have kids, or a spouse, or money for the Instragram-worthy vacation?

How do you matter when you have to take a bus, have your electricity turned off, or need to ask others for food?

Well, you find other ways to matter.

Beck describes a couple of men like that who attend his church. They’re lonely and powerless and seeking a sense of significance in a world that regards people like them as insignificant. One has become a “confabulator,” using tall tales to find a sense of importance. The other seems to be perpetually injured. Beck says of these Eleanor Rigbies:

Though his stories don’t jibe with reality, you listen attentively and express interest and concern. Because he wants to matter.


When you see him you inquire about his most recent injury. And he tells you the story of the accident. And you listen because this is how he matters.

Note the use of the second person in those sentences. I’m sure students of rhetoric and grammar have a name for that, but I don’t know what it is — something like “second-person normative” maybe. That’s another little trick used by both preachers and comics. And mothers. It’s sort of aspirationally presumptuous — a way of sneaking in an “ought” without triggering our defenses against moralistic language. Whether or not it is an accurate description of what “you” actually do when encountering such people, it challenges us to make it accurate, to be or to become the kind of “you” for whom it is accurate.

To be honest, in my case, it’s not always accurate. I often look for any chance I can find to escape from people like those Beck describes, to avoid having to listen to their stories, which tend to be frustratingly long and time-consuming, and I haven’t got a lot of time to spare. I have other things I have to do — important things, things that matter, and …


Beck’s next example hit even closer to home for me:

Occasionally I drive a van for our church Freedom Fellowship on Wednesday. Driving that route has taught me that sometimes we matter because of what we know. And even the smallest, thinnest epistemological edge can give you this sense of mattering. At the start, being new to the route the regular passengers knew the locations and best routes to get everyone that needed to be picked up. The first few times I drove I needed help about where to go next. People helped me and it made them feel like they mattered. They knew something that I didn’t. Their knowledge allowed them to help me, placed them in a superior position.

But as I’ve driven more and more, I need directions less and less. But still the directions come. I know I need to turn left, they know I know that I need to turn left, but I’m still told to turn left. Why? Because telling me how to go helps them matter. And they are going to hold on to that mattering for as long as possible. And I’m not going to rush them. Sometimes I ask for directions when I don’t need them.

I know this situation. I’ve been there — precisely. The very same thing happened to me this morning, driving my co-worker home from the night-shift at the big-box warehouse-store. And it will happen again tomorrow morning. I know where he lives and how to get there from the store, but every time he gives me directions.

The person in this picture is very important.

That was really starting to bug me, until I noticed that it was really starting to bug me.

I noticed, specifically, that I found it disproportionately irritating in the same way that it’s so easy to be irked or rankled or infuriated by the perpetual advice given us by the various managers and assistant managers and department managers at the store. Annoyance with this advice is a perennial topic of conversation among the crew at lunch breaks and coffee breaks. It took about a month on the job before I figured out why.

See, what we do there is we re-stock shelves. We take pallets of merchandise off of trucks and break them down and sort them and then, with cages, carts and pallet-jacks, we haul them to the various parts of the sprawling store where we slice open boxes and ensure that the shelves are filled with their bounty of offerings the following morning. It’s not complicated — all of the merchandise and all of the shelves are coded, and matching those codes isn’t particularly tricky. It may be a kind of menial drudge work, but like all such work it can be done with care, and the guys in the crew are good at it. They do it fast and they do it well. They’ve been at this a long time and they know what they’re doing.

And I think that is why all that unbidden, unnecessary advice from the various managers gets under their skin. It’s an implicit suggestion that they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a kind of refusal to give them the respect they’ve earned as people who know what they’re doing.

That bugs the guys on the crew. It bugged me, too, enough to make me start trying to figure out exactly how and why. And once I started exploring that, I came to see that all those manager-types were wrestling with the same thing. They, too, were just struggling to find some source of respect or of self-respect in a job that doesn’t offer as many sources of that as we all might like or want or need.

In Richard Beck’s terms, “We all want to matter.” We all require some sense of “respect, esteem and interest.” Once I realized that cheerfully accepting the superfluous instructions or inaccurate advice of one of those various bosses was an opportunity to allow them that, I was able to take the focus off myself — and thus off of my reflexive resentment over being denied even that slight source of mattering. I began, instead, repeating the mantra: This is water. This is water.

That’s from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. Please read the whole thing, but here’s the core of it:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

When you meet someone who maybe feels like they don’t matter — or who has been told they don’t matter, or who has been assigned a lot in life that the world says doesn’t matter — you have the chance to choose consciousness over unconsciousness. You have the chance to regain a piece of some infinite thing.

You have a chance, in other words, to show that person that they do matter — to reassure them that they are deserving of respect, esteem and interest. Even if you don’t need directions, sometimes you should ask for them because the other person needs to give them.

That’s a way of comforting the afflicted. That’s a kind of pastoral ministry.

But this matter of mattering also has prophetic implications. Richard Beck discusses those as well, and so will we here, but let me save that for a part 2 and a follow-up because right now I’ve gotta go. Those shelves won’t re-stock themselves you know.


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