We are now several weeks into global change… and wow… what a remarkable view I have on our world.
We are so, so, so many days into what can easily be described as unanticipated and unwelcome change. Change that is rooted in a viral pandemic, and that is impacting health, and that is taking the lives of local and global neighbors. A pandemic that is consuming medical and day-to-day resources, and that is compelling social distancing and self-quarantine or even complete isolation.
And yet, change – though unanticipated and unwelcome, and even unfathomable just weeks ago – that is shining a light on the reality of who and how we are as people. A spotlight that is revealing how we as individuals and communities are choosing to reflect on and respond to personal challenges and a global crisis, and reach out with kindness and compassion, and concern and community – even during this incredibly tough time.
For weeks now, my soul has longed to promise everyone (really, everyone!) that everything will be okay. While I do believe that we will, someday, recover from this, and that locally and worldwide, we will, somehow, be okay – well, I cannot make that promise to everyone, nor can I fix this for anyone. This truth has been unsettling for me. Oftentimes, I am feeling helpless, even though I do not feel hopeless.
As “Mama Peace” and a beach chair philosopher, I enjoy helping people find the good in themselves, and in others, and in our world – despite inevitable challenges and changes. I want every child and every adult to understand and to believe that ”you matter,” and that “we matter,” and that each of us, and all of us, have purpose – not because of our roles in life, and not associated with any lists or litanies of accomplishments or hardships – but simply because we exist.
This is also how I tried to raise my four children – to know that they mattered, regardless of who or how they were as little people, and no matter what challenges they faced, or how long they might be on this earth.
All four of my children were born across just a four-and-a-half-year timespan (yes, I am an Irish Catholic). When giving birth to the first two – Katie and Stevie – I had absolutely no reason to anticipate that they would be anything but perfectly healthy and happy little ones. And while they were beautiful and cherished and amazing little gifts, they also were compromised by a rare and difficult to understand (or even diagnose for several years) condition that wreaked havoc with their autonomic (or automatic) body systems. It was devastating when they both died, first Katie, not even two years old yet, and then Stevie, eight months later as he was only halfway through his first year in life.
I was told that this genetic mystery was recessive and highly unlikely to recur. So even as I was aching with the weight of an empty lap, I was also very happy to learn that I was carrying a third child. But when my son, Jamie, was born with the same symptoms, I was in complete shock. And then, something even more unfathomable happened. My intention was to have no more biological children. And, yes, I have been judged (by many…) for choosing to carry an unplanned fourth pregnancy to term. But to this day, I know that my son, Mattie, was not an accident, nor was he a mistake… he was, and is, simply a spirit meant to be.
When Jamie died shortly before his fourth birthday, preschool-aged Mattie was too young to fully understand the depth of death. But he was old enough, and wise enough, to be deeply impacted by the sudden change in his life, and by the absence and “distancing” of his beloved brother.
Mattie also had to deal with the fear of unknowns related to his own health status. By the time Jamie died, I had been diagnosed with an “adult-onset form” of a rare, progressive, and debilitating neuromuscular disease, which – as an athletic and able-bodied (and clueless about any of this) young adult – I had unknowingly passed on to my babies. Even worse was that I passed on a mutation known as “infant-onset form” – a condition that is not compatible with survival.
Again, Mattie was too young to fully understand the significance of this information, but he was old enough, and aware enough, to be deeply impacted by fear – realizing that he relied on some of the same medical equipment and procedures and medicines that his now forever-absent brother had relied on. And by the time he was four years old, he knew that his mother’s health was also changing, as he was riding on the back of my wheelchair rather than on the back of my bike.
For many reasons that were beyond our control, Mattie’s daily routines and securities were upended. He was faced with the challenges of finding a “new normal” – socially and emotionally and day-to-day’ly, of learning to cope with both sudden and ongoing unanticipated and unwelcome changes, and of somehow, someday, choosing to “celebrate life” again (and again and again) despite the pain of loss and the fear of unknowns.
Mattie did all of this – as a tyke and as a young teen – with grace and with joy despite the pain, and with a selflessness and yet a sense of purposefulness that humbles me, and inspires me today – nearly 16 years after his passing, as I search for solace – for my soul, and for my world, during this unsettling and scary time of changes and challenges.
From the age of 3 until his death, just three weeks before his 14th birthday, Mattie opened his heart to receiving messages that he said were placed there by God, and he opened his mind to learning more and more about his world and about humanity – both the brilliant beauty we are capable of being, and also the horrendous ugliness that has also existed.
He shaped and shared what he called “Heartsongs” – expressions of inner purpose – into poetry and passages and public speeches and personal conversations – with the hope of helping everyone, everywhere, understand and realize and celebrate that each of us, and all of us, have a unique reason for being, and that collectively – we are an amazing global mosaic, and that with purpose and patience and perseverance, we can connect with peace.
By age 8, Mattie J.T. Stepanek was already working on what would become his final book and gift for our world – “Just Peace: A Message of Hope.” Mattie firmly believed that “hope is real” and that “peace is possible.” In this book, he avowed that each of us, and all of us, are created of love and with purpose and for community, and that we are “generally and genuinely good people.”
However, although Mattie reminded us that “we have, we are, a mosaic of gifts… to nurture, to offer, and to accept…” he also cautioned us, that even as generally and generally good people, we are too often – by chance or by choice – shattering the global “mosaic of humanity,” and shredding the “festive fabric of life.”
Mattie spent countless hours researching and reflecting on what he considered fundamental issues related to peace, and also to a lack of peace and interruptions to peace – both historically and in the present days and years.
He spent even more hours responding to what he decided were basic “choices for peace” and creating “peace tips” – inspirational messages to support youth and adults in understanding what it means to seek and to make and to bring peace – for ourselves and for our communities and for our world.
And, he lived his life, those “few handfuls of years,” reaching out with his “pathways to peace” and “peace tools” – informational materials that can guide each of us, and all of us, in moving from attitude to action – for peace.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Mattie’s friend and mentor and collaborator on the “Just Peace” book, said that while Mattie had idealistic visions for peace, he also offered practical approaches for moving peace from a possibility to a reality. President Carter was impressed with Mattie’s compassion for humanity, and with his all-encompassing faith and spirituality and his deep respect for life and for all people.
He agreed with Mattie’s concept of peace being rooted in tending to basic human needs, and with his belief that interruptions to peace are often associated with fear and unknowns, and when we are – for some reason or some lack of resource or inner purpose – not okay with who and how we are as people.
He supported Mattie’s emphasis on personal and community “choices” as a template and blueprint for peace, and he had many conversations with Mattie, as these two peace ambassadors from different generations considered what it means for our world to create a “just peace” – not just a pause in violence, but a collaborative and deliberate and creative and sustainable plan for something embraceable and achievable… for something that can be taught to children, and role-modeled by leaders, and celebrated by local and global neighbors.
And, he admired Mattie’s passion and perseverance in pursuing peace – even as Mattie was personally struggling to survive in a body being weakened by a progressive disability.
When he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, President Carter went outside just after the ceremony and climbed to the top of a small hill where he picked up a rock on which he inscribed a message for Mattie. He sent this bit of our world as a tangible gift for Mattie, saying that he believed Mattie “shared the honor” of that day with him. During his eulogy for him two years later, and many times across the years since then, President Carter has referred to Mattie as the “most extraordinary person whom I have ever known.”
Since Mattie’s passing in 2004, many people have written or asked me: “What would Mattie think… or say… or do… in this situation or that situation?” – and how would he help us cope with challenges and changes. My response has always been to go back to what Mattie offered us… to what Mattie created for us and to what Mattie left behind for us – his words and messages.
I go back and sift and sort through memories and poetry and passages, and read and re-read his books, and consider and re-considered what I can gather and organize as the remnants of his life and lessons. And somehow, I always end up re-rooted in hope and commitment, and re-grounded with some idealistic yet practical plan for how to “move forthward” – into some next moment – with purpose, for peace.
This week, we are being inundated with news reports that update us on the exponentially growing numbers of people who are impacted or dying from the COVID-19 virus. We are being informed that the plans for social distancing and isolating quarantines will continue – for at least another month (or more…). We are being reminded of the challenging changes we are facing in our daily routines related to home and school and work and community activities.
And yet, despite all of this, I am also seeing exponentially growing numbers of people who are choosing to connect with others in purposeful ways – even while practicing social distancing. I see information about how individuals and communities are creatively offering social and emotional, financial and physical, medical and moral, spiritual and logistical, and other types of much needed support to other individuals and communities. I am reminded of the passion and perseverance of “essential workers” and so many of our healthcare providers and educators and leaders and feeders and cleaners and caregivers and countless others who somehow, each day, tend to our basic needs – in body, or in mind, or in spirit.
We are now several weeks into global change… and yes, many folks are asking me what Mattie would think or say or do about this pandemic and the changes and humanity? And wow… what a remarkable response I have for our world.
When Mattie was 10 years old, he wrote a poem titled, “About Perseverance” (see image above). In this passage, he reminds us that no matter how hard we strive for a goal, like peace, if we are not unified, the goal is forever out of reach. But he also reassures us that with perseverance, we can help each other, and work together, “day after night after day” – and achieve a great goal. And in his “Just Peace” book, he reiterates our need for “creativity and perseverance and fortitude, as we serve as advocates and activists and role models” – for hope and for peace.
Yes, my soul longs to heal the world, to promise everyone that we will be okay. But while I cannot fix the pandemic or solve the challenges that are causing such unwelcome and unfathomable change as we have seen across the past weeks, I can share, without doubt, a beautiful realization and belief. I can celebrate that even as my son’s spirit surely longs to comfort each of us and all of us, Mattie is smiling for us and upon us as he witnesses this amazing light of goodness that is shining from within us and among us – as we somehow, each day, choose creativity and perseverance, and not only cope with challenges and change, but also choose to be a source of hope for humanity, and for our world.
And so, I can promise – yes, somehow, someday, things will be okay.
Jeni Stepanek, PhD