“Do I matter?”
Have you ever been repeatedly irritated by something someone says? You know – a quirky phrase misused, or a chronically mispronounced word? The kind of thing that tempts you to want to correct, even though it’s not really worth embarrassing someone over?
That’s what the phrase “you matter” is for me.
It’s a sort of mantra these days, a slogan, or (if I’m generous) perhaps people intend it to be a conversation starter. An acquaintance of mine says to me, “you matter” on a regular basis. And to be perfectly honest, it’s just plain irritating.
I know what she’s trying to communicate – that my life has significance and meaning in the world. But that is not what she is saying – at least not to me.
I know very little about her – we’re not friends. There’s no mutuality to the relationship. I spend time with her on a regular basis because of circumstances, but the level of intimacy required to know whether or not I matter is not there and for her to keep saying it is, well, irksome. Maybe I’m just being a pedantic jerk – I don’t know – but every time she says it now I want to ask her, “tell me – to whom?”
OK, I get it. In the great, grand scheme of things, everyone “matters.” As Christians we believe humans are made in the image of God, and therefore we have inherent dignity and worth. Human life has significance. Most reasonable people agree with this even if they wouldn’t put it in these terms – it’s generally accepted that we shouldn’t be indiscriminately killed or consumed as food. There is a quality about being human that is different from being an animal or a plant.
Apparently, some would argue that taking up space in the world as a human, then, is the essence of “mattering.”
I would not be among them. Instead, I would argue that “mattering” only makes sense in the context of a relationship. The significance and importance ascribed to one person must be valued by another. In other words, the sentence is incomplete if we stop at, “you matter.” We need to complete it by saying, “you matter to me.” “Mattering” has to be in relationship to someone else or it’s nonsense.
To matter at all means that you are connected to another human. Being human carries inherent dignity and worth, but you can have dignity and worth and be utterly alone. If you matter to someone, it means that they have regarded your dignity and worth as something worth attending. You are seen – your personality, your strengths, your character, your perspectives and thoughts, your hopes and dreams, and even your fears – as worth investing in, worth knowing. Your presence will have been noticed – and valued – by another soul.
To matter to someone is to be held in a place of priority – to be “special” to someone in some way. To matter to someone is to be regarded as worth investing time, resources, effort, and care into. To matter to someone means your well-being is important to them and your flourishing is something they are willing to work toward. In its simplest terms, to matter to someone means that you are cared about, and cared for. It may not always rise to the level of love and affection, but it always rises above “the crowd.”
We respond warmly to it and derive a sense of our own significance and worth from it. To matter to someone is to be significant and important to them.
That is what it means to matter. Mattering is always in the context of a relationship. It’s absurd to think of it any other way.
So, why does all this talk about mattering matter to me? Because as a survivor of abuse, I have often wondered – do I matter to anyone? Is anyone interested in who I am – not just in what they can get from me but for what makes me a person, an individual, me? It’s a question every survivor asks, so hopefully this public wrestling with words proves at least somewhat valuable to others.
Abuse strikes at the very core of a person’s identity. It is inter-personal betrayal in the most foundational level of relationships. Treachery that comes wrapped in the guise of what should be loving, safe relationships but are instead abusive, destroys a victim’s concept of having any meaning or significance in the world at all. It makes sense that being exploited by the people you should matter to twists and distorts the idea of mattering at all. Survivors not only struggle to understand the people and circumstances that surround them, but they struggle to understand their own selves, as well. When those closest to you don’t serve to protect your being, when even your own skin can’t protect the core of who you are, what can? Children growing up in loving, healthy environments never wonder if they matter to anyone – they know they do and inhale it with the air they breathe. But this is not so for those who have been damaged and shamed by abuse.
Diane Langberg, PhD often speaks of how we need to learn about the abstract through the concrete. She talks about how Jesus used ordinary things that even peasants would be familiar with – like water, bread, and wine – to teach us who he is and what he is like. We all needed Jesus to be a man – the concreteness of God “in the flesh” – to really be able to understand his heart. I think the same is true with the concept of “mattering” to anyone.
How can an individual understand that he or she matters to an invisible God if they’ve never known what it is like to matter to another human being? How can they understand that “being used by God” is not the same as being used by those who abused them? How can a person possibly understand what it means to have significance and meaning outside of a human relationship, if they’ve never known it inside one?
You see, mattering to someone is how we can come to understand that we matter to God. We need the more tangible experience of mattering to someone “in the flesh” in order to understand that we even could matter to God. The question, “Do I matter?” can only be answered in the context of a relationship, and the conclusion, “yes, I matter,” can only be arrived at through the experience of a relationship where we are appreciated, valued, and treasured simply because of who we are.
Sometimes people ask, “How can I help you? What can I do for you?” when they learn about my struggle. It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know if they mean really do something or if they don’t know what else to say. But If you really want to help a survivor of abuse, let them matter to you. See them, know them, love them for who they are. Let their flourishing be important enough to you to pursue. Don’t look at the abuse only but appreciate their strengths and their character. Learn of their creativity or depths of compassion. Care about what is important to them and what they’re hoping for. See past the damage and the work they need to do to become whole again, and delight in the complex, multi-faceted human being they were created to be. Let them really matter to you so that they can taste and see the goodness and care of the One to whom they matter the most. Answer their question, “Do I matter?” with, “Yes! You matter a great deal to me,” for I have a sneaking suspicion that coming to believe that we might matter to someone is the gateway for believing that we might be loved. And that, beloved church, is what survivors need to know the most.