“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet and natural philosopher (1749-1832)
“You are hurting my business giving away those photographs,” the words stung as I continued snapping the shutter on my camera. The students were stars on the basketball court for those short minutes, and I had decided to help them hold the memory of the sounds, smells, and sights in a photograph that would last as long as the students and parents wanted them. I might not have been popular with some in the business world, but I was trying to live von Goethe’s words, and I hoped knowing someone else celebrated who they were would be an encouragement to those who needed it to become who they were capable of becoming.
Let’s face it, people respond to being honored, to being treated as if they are special. When you are a bench-warmer and get in the game for the last minute, the photo of you making a great play tells a viewer that you played. There is no remark necessary about how much or how little you played. You played. That’s really all that matters when you are older and the court is a distant memory. You have proof of your moment. That is why I took pictures of high school basketball players for several years — I wanted them to feel that they were stars, if only for a moment captured on a file and printed on paper, because we live in a world in which many are more anxious to remind you that you aren’t anything special. Some players played so rarely that by the end of the season I would ask the coach if there might be a chance they would play that game because I still didn’t have a single good picture of them. They mattered.
When I was a little girl and went with my mother to visit the people in the nursing home in our town, I hugged on them and listened to their stories because they mattered to me. They might not have family members who came to visit, but we went every week, and the message they surely drew from our coming was that they mattered.
You matter. I matter. And while we have so many opportunities to feel we don’t really matter to anyone, that our absence would be no big deal, the truth is that we each matter. Maybe that is the message you need to hear today. If you think you don’t matter, I’m going to argue with you, because I believe every single one of us matters.
My plea and my intention here is twofold. 1) You matter, and you need to hear that. 2) Other people matter, and you need to make it part of your day to let them know that.
When you say, “They get paid well for doing their job, they know they matter,” it’s not enough. It’s nice, but it costs nothing to say how much and why you appreciate them.
When you say, “That person smells bad and is really in the way,” they don’t know they matter, but they do. Stop and think about their situation, how they might have arrived there, and what kind of life they might have had before. They matter, and it’s part of your human responsibility to acknowledge that to yourself and to them.
When you say, “I can’t stand that person because they look at life completely wrong and make me want to pull out my hair,” there is no doubt they matter. People who challenge us are necessary. If everyone agreed with everything we said, it would be a pretty dull and dangerous society. Remind yourself how good it is to have people who make you reconsider your beliefs about any number of things — they matter.
Not only is it important to recognize, in general, that people matter, but there are also times when it’s most important to make people feel that they matter. One of my favorite quotes from the poet Maya Angelou is thrown around frequently, with good reason: People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. How do you make people feel?
Because it seems to have made such an impact on me, I often talk about people who live in retirement communities, long-term care homes, and even retired people in your church or civic group. There is a huge part of our society who had lives before we knew them. When you meet someone in a bed who needs help getting to the bathroom, you simply must take time to learn who that person was before they became who they are. People have value in every stage of life, and when we take time to discover who they were when they felt important, we let them know they mattered then and they matter now. When the man in the meeting gets on your nerves because you think he can’t possibly know much about the topic on which you are presenting, take a minute to find out who he was before you knew him. He had value then and can have value now if you will only take the time to listen.
Whether we are talking about students in school with the world ahead of them, elderly people with most of life behind them, or anyone in between, we are talking about people who matter. We get to choose how we will treat people in the checkout lane, in the hospital waiting room, in the school cafeteria — and how we choose to treat them can help them become who they are capable of being, if only we remember that every single person matters. Make the effort to let someone know they matter today and watch them light up right before your eyes.