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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  • AnonaMiss

    An upvote was not enough to demonstrate my agreement so have this comment of 100% agreement.

    Also I had thought my “asshole” interpretation of the Beck piece was colored by a previous negative interaction I had had with him. Now I know better, thank you.

  • sarah

    …unless your boss is like mine and hires INFJs (without knowing that they’re INFJs til later on) because she’s also an INFJ. It doesn’t always work badly for us introverts.

  • Sue White

    Yeah, I’m finding it hard to like the guy. I mean, he goes on to imply that how much someone matters is correlated with how much money they have. And the only way someone can matter if they fall on hard times is by telling tall tales or whatever. That’s news to me. Losing your job or your electricity sucks enough without being told that now you don’t even matter. Somehow I always thought those were unrelated issues.

  • Susan_G1

    I’m surprised by all the reactions this has generated, but I don’t follow Slactivist. Was brought here by the title.

    It’s as if Jesus said, love thy neighbor, and everyone started to debate this.

  • When Jesus said “love thy neighbor,” people debated with him, too.

    And then they killed him.

  • arcseconds

    I still don’t see why you don’t think there’s no obligation to provide for people’s social needs. In fact, it sounds like you think the government has an obligation to do this, but individuals don’t, which strikes me as rather strange.

    What if the government doesn’t do enough to meet people’s needs? Do you think there’s an obligation, or at least some kind of moral impetus, to give privately in those cases? Is there a difference between donating money or time to food banks and donating money or time to Samaritans?

    Is the second kind of optional, or a fun thing to do, whereas the first is obligatory?

    I don’t think your examples really show too much. I agree that there’s no requirement to invite annoying people to parties. But I think that’s for two reasons: one is that how you discharge your obligations to society is really up to you, so you don’t have to do something specific in any particular case.

    Secondly, spending an entire evening with an annoying person (and subjecting all your friends to them, too) is a high cost for most of us. It would be like giving a substantial portion of your weekly income to charity — few think that’s a requirement.

    Also, screw Maslow’s hierarchy. If anything, people need community, art and spiritual comfort more when they’re in great material need, not less.

  • Isabel C.

    For the first question…yes, basically. I think that a government is morally obligated to provide a physical and social safety net for all of its citizens, and that individuals are morally obligated to contribute to that upkeep in amounts proportional to their income. I don’t think that there’s any individual *obligation* over and above that, though it’s certainly good to contribute when you can: I don’t necessarily think less of someone who doesn’t give to charity unless that person is also advocating for tax cuts or keeping their money in an offshore account or whatnot.

    I also think that, insofar as an obligation does exist, it applies more to material resources. I do feel that I personally should give some percent of my income and, when helpful, volunteer time to various charities; I don’t feel that I should necessarily give any percent of my social energy to anyone except friends and close family. Which is sort of what I meant by material rather than social–we’re obligated to contribute to people’s social support structures, but we’re not obligated to do so via our own interactions.

  • jdens

    There’s someone who works in my building that I simply want to have no interactions with whatsoever because I find her tedious, irritating, and in her own way, demanding. She forces conversations about mundane topics (price of milk, time it takes her to get to work every morning, how early she arrived), and while that’s annoying, what I discovered I really resent is that she waits for me to give an appropriately impressed reaction to whatever she’s said. Whether that’s her own self-professed expertise in an area, or the price of milk at the shop next door or that she shaved another minute off her commute time this morning, or her repeated advice to me on a matter she knows nothing about, there seems to be no way to close the conversation graciously without acquiescing to being impressed–and if I do that, she takes it as encouragement to renew the conversation from the top.

    I don’t know much about her personal life, but I’m pretty sure that she’s woefully ill-equipped to work in the kinds of jobs she seems to think suitable (she’s working as an intern now as part of an unemployment benefit scheme, and the employers are trying hard to give her jobs she can’t mess up too badly) and at an age where training from scratch for anything is difficult. She is both incompetent at a lot of things necessary to work in the kinds of jobs she seems to aspire to and yet eager to be seen as expert and important. She deserves my compassion and she wants my respect, and I have given her the bare minimum of both. So thank you for this post because really, how does it harm me to give her some encouragement? (It is painful, though. Really squirmily painful. I’m hoping an attitude adjustment will help me give her the affirmation she seems to be desperate for. I know it’s the kind thing to do, but it is actually, physically difficult for me to do it.)

  • jdens

    I fully recognise that all of the above complaints are petty, and that her behavior is (mostly) harmless. I want to be a kind and patient person.

  • Cat

    When I was on a research trip in the north of England, with my Luggage of Doom and a case of plantar fasciitis so bad I needed a cane to get around, I was advised that the north was a dangerous place, and if I ever got lost, I should ask pensioners for directions. I tried that once, just once. After fifteen minutes of talking it over–quite charmingly, I’ll admit–the white men on the park bench in Birmingham sent me in ENTIRELY the wrong direction.

    After that incident, and after observing the dynamics of the north, I took to asking groups of young men of colour for directions. Every one of them seemed pleased to be asked, and after all the things I saw–the dress codes, the policing, the nonsense about “anti-social behaviour”–I thought trusting them would be a small way of returning what British society seemed to be doing its best to systematically strip away. And my trust was well placed; no one ever steered me wrong again.