Role Models

A WHILE back, I decided that I needed to review my list of heroes and role models. It was a bit short. Granted, I’ve never had a formal list, but I think most of us have one in some form or another.

I also decided that it’s okay to put people on your list for very specific things—that they do not have to be nearly perfect people, or seemingly beyond reproach. I think that as long as you can find some thing in them that you truly admire and would like to emulate, then you should throw them on your list. We seem to forget that this is really the way humanity works; that we are each a mix of honorable things and dishonorable things—of strengths and weaknesses. Too many of us find it impossible to admire anything about a person if we can find something about them we think is questionable. I tend to think we have this backwards. But I am beginning to digress.

I have three people I need to formally place onto my list; two I will briefly mention and one I will talk about a bit. Here are the new additions:

Jimmy Carter, for his humanitarian work, his unflinching honesty on a number of issues, and for realizing that being President of the United States does not make you more special than anybody else.

Johnny Cash, for living a life that was open for all to see, warts and all. Johnny helped the world see that truth and honesty is, in itself, an art. I was originally going to write my whole post around the idea of Mr. Cash, but I found this article instead. Check it out; it’s a winner.

And the third person on the list, the person I’d like to talk about for a few moments, is Mattie Stepanek. If you want to know facts, figures and biographical information about Mattie, do a web search. I just want to talk a bit about what Mattie meant to me.

I had followed Mattie a bit on television and had read one of his books shortly before he passed away. I remember clearly the night that I saw his face on television and sat down to listen to him talk, only to learn that he had passed away. I walked off by myself and shed a few tears. It was a strange feeling for me, because I never had a little brother, but the night Mattie died, I felt as though I had just lost one.

The Mattie I was able to see on TV and glimpse through his poetry was a magical human being. In his thirteen years of life he became in many ways the person I have yet to become in forty. Of course Mattie could get away with a lot of things that adults cannot. Due to the nature of his disease, he had to live life a day at a time. He did not have to plan for a future. He didn’t have to seem sophisticated and he didn’t have to put on a pretense of being mature. He didn’t need to claim allegiance to many things, and he didn’t have to defend his beliefs. He didn’t have to worry about being reprimanded by others, be they secular or church folks. Other people didn’t find him threatening. He could afford to be naïve. He could say what he felt. And he felt beautiful things.

Mattie was young enough to be able to afford naiveté, innocence and fantastic hope untainted by the burdens and cynicism of adult life. This was part of his magic, and perhaps we can say he received this for free. But on the other hand, a little boy who had to live with the death of all his siblings, and with the looming specter of his own early death, certainly had plenty of reason to be jaded—yet he was not. And the force behind Mattie’s magic was that his youth was a channel for adult ideas and perceptions about the needs of humanity. This, perhaps, he did not get for free, but rather earned through his own trials and agonies in the flesh. Or, if it was given to him freely, then I consider it likely that it was given to him because he alone was worthy to receive it and able to carry it in grace.

As for me, I find myself asking why, if I see the unquestionable beauty of Mattie’s life, why can I not believe in that beauty enough to emulate it? I find the fact of my adulthood to be an insufficient answer. And so, I have placed a seed in the soil of my soul lately—something that Mattie would have likened, I think, to a few notes of a song in my heart. That seed is the idea of loving with the heart of a child, driven by concerns of the ages, without the dubitable concerns of adult sophistication. Perhaps in short form, it is to let God love through me as he would through a child, and for me to be courageous enough to let him do so.

If you get a chance, go to a bookstore and browse through the book Reflections of a Peacemaker: A Portrait Through Heartsongs. It is the last of Mattie’s books, put together by his mother after his death. As I skimmed through it the other night, it was all I could do to hide my growing tears from other patrons in the store while I read what others have said about Mattie. Jimmy Carter, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Jerry Lewis and others share some of their thoughts in this book. Jimmy Carter notes that in all his travels throughout the world, after meeting presidents and kings and queens and princes and princesses, he was most impressed by Mattie, over all of them. And an entertainment personality notes that she never believed in the idea of angels coming to earth, until she met Mattie.

AS A PARENT, I try to understand the mixture of feelings Jeni Stepanek must face in regard to Mattie. It becomes too convoluted in my mind, for Mattie’s special nature must have, I tend to think, made his passing both more and less tragic. She would be blameless, too, if in the end she would have preferred Mattie a little less special, and still alive with her. And let us not forget that she lost not only Mattie, but her other children as well—little ones whose names the world does not repeat in fame, but were just as special to her. I began all this talk of Mattie hoping that I might say something meaningful to Ms. Stepanek, but as I sit here and think of my own children, I know that my hope was vanity, and that I should have known so when I began. I think that in order to say something meaningful, I would have to be something I am not. I am no Abram. If Mattie had been mine, I might well think the world did not deserve him, and that I simply want him back.

But then again, perhaps Mattie himself would have taught me otherwise; taught me that he belonged to the world. I can see him thinking that of himself. Beautiful people tend to think that way. It is what makes them beautiful.

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