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The Philanthropist: A Note from Brian


So if you're walkin' down the street sometime
, And spot some hollow, ancient eyes
, Please don't just pass 'em by and stare, 
As if you didn't care
, Say, "Hello in there, hello" — John Prine, “Hello in There”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “mattering.” Yes, it’s a thing. Dr. Gordon Flett, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of the book The Psychology of Mattering, discovered the meaning as a child when he would visit his grandmother at the company cafeteria she managed. She would hang on his every word.

He also, painfully, remembers when he felt otherwise. He maintains that mattering is a “core, universal human need,” and involves “more than feeling you belong in a group,” but also being “missed by people in that group if you weren’t there.” To matter, people need to be heard, appreciated and cared for, and they also want to feel like they add value to relationships in ways that make them feel trusted and important.

I thought of that very thing as I witnessed a heated interaction between a customer and a store employee recently. I don’t know what led up to the exchange, but I very clearly heard the customer proclaim their displeasure with the employee. Presumably, he wanted to be heard by others in line, as if to make sure we all knew that he won’t be treated that way, because by gosh and by golly, he is important and deserves to be heard! I wonder how much of the vitriol on social media is provoked by that same motivation — “You better listen to me and my opinion! I matter!”  

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently released his book, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen, which follows a very similar vein. He maintains true understanding is “one of the most generous gifts any of us can give to another.” On a broader level, he believes it can help us with our current polarized world: “The real process of, say, building a friendship or creating a community involves performing a series of small, concrete actions well: being curious about other people; disagreeing without poisoning relationships; revealing vulnerability at an appropriate pace; being a good listener; knowing how to ask for and offer forgiveness; knowing how to host a gathering where everyone feels embraced; knowing how to see things from another’s point of view.”

The other side of mattering is proactively doing those things that matter. I have found that I am happier and more fulfilled when I’m not thinking about myself and am doing something for someone else. Marisa Franco, a clinical professor at University of Maryland, says, “When I’m having a thought that I don’t matter … I remember the cashier at the grocery store smiling when I asked about her grandson.” That is reciprocity: it benefits the complimenter and the complimented. Charitable giving can have that same benefit; it helps the people or cause you care about and reinforces that you matter to that group, too. 

As the late singer and songwriter John Prine so poignantly articulated, a reminder that we matter can be as simple as an inquiry about a grandson, or just not passing by or staring at a person. A smile and greeting at the right time may be more powerful than any social media post you can conjure up.  

Hello in there, hello.