Do you ever wonder if you’ve made, or will make, your mark in this world? Whether anyone will notice your passing? Whether you will be completely forgotten in one or two generations?
I think it’s natural for human beings, the majority of whom are acutely aware of their mortality and concerned that their lives matter, to ask such questions.
Turns out, there’s an academic discipline devoted to that subject, though according to a recent article in the New York Times entitled, “Want to Believe in Yourself? ‘Mattering’ Is Key,” the discipline may be less philosophical than what is implied in my questions. I had never heard of the concept of “mattering” before reading the article.
Written by Gail Cornwall, the article is sub-titled, “This overlooked concept has been linked to better relationships — with oneself and others.”
It’s mostly about Gordon Flett, a professor at York University and the author of “The Psychology of Mattering,” and his research. The article says he is “one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject” and that “he and other experts agree that a sense of mattering is necessary for human flourishing.
“Mattering,” says the article, is ‘a core, universal human need,’ a necessary component for well-being,” according to Dr. Flett. “But it’s tricky to define, he added, because people sometimes confuse it with belonging, self-esteem and social connection.
“It involves ‘more than feeling like you belong in a group,’ he explained; it’s also being ‘missed by people in that group if you weren’t there.’ When it comes to self-esteem, you can like yourself and feel capable, but ‘you still won’t be a happy person if no one notices you when you enter a room.’”
Cornwall also quotes another professor, Isaac Prilleltensky of the University of Miami: “To matter, people must feel valued — heard, appreciated and cared for — and they must feel like they add value in ways that make them feel capable, important and trusted.
“Research suggests that people who feel like they matter experience more self-compassion, relationship satisfaction, and greater belief in their capacity to achieve their goals,” writes Cornwall, “while lack of mattering is associated with burnout, self-criticism, anxiety, depression, aggression and increased risk of suicide.”
I have no quarrel with these ideas, which remind me of those of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and founder of logotherapy, which Wikipedia describes as “a school of psychotherapy that describes a search for a life’s meaning as the central human motivational force.” Frankl’s ideas, however, which grew out of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, seem to me much more profound than “mattering.”
Even more profound, in my view, is the perspective on life’s meaning offered by many religions. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, for instance, human dignity and meaning result from the view that God is a parent, the creator of the universe who unconditionally loves all his/her creatures and invites us to love in return.
This dignity and meaning require nothing of us. Our value comes from God, not from something we accomplish, nor from “being missed in a group” or “being noticed when you enter a room.” This view of human worth and dignity accounts for the opposition of many religions to such practices as abortion, the death penalty and assisted suicide, the need for social justice and to care for one other.
This view is a benefit of faith. Believers can have confidence that no matter what happens – including our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones, and all manner of catastrophes – God is with us.
For me, the most beautiful metaphors for this idea are in Jesus’ appeal to his followers in the gospels of Mathew and Luke to reject fear: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” he asks in Luke’s gospel. “And not one of them is forgotten by God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”
That’s mattering that matters.