Do You Matter?

It’s the question on the tongue of every human heart. For millennia, we have tried to prove we matter with success and status and stuff. But what if we finally decided there was nothing left to prove? What if we decided our worth was no longer in doubt? What if we decided “mattering” didn’t matter anymore? Maybe we’d be free to quit the game of proof and get into the game of life…

self-worth and purpose

Photo Credit: yoshiffles via Compfight cc

I’m writing a book.

Every Friday morning at 9am, I sit down to continue working on it, and every time I sit down I’m hit with the same sinking feeling. It comes in the form of a question: What if these words don’t matter? It’s a crippling thought, a dreadful feeling that keeps me looking back at the sentence I’ve just written, questioning, doubting, sinking deeper and deeper into the rhetorical quicksand.

What if my words don’t matter?

A question that disguises another question: What if I don’t matter?

But last Friday, something different happened. As I began to sink into the quagmire, I heard the still, small whisper of grace: Kelly, you don’t write a book because you think it will matter—you write a book in spite of the fact it probably won’t matter.

You do what you love because the desire has been written on your heart, implanted in your soul, and engraved into your DNA. You do it because you aren’t you unless you do it.

Author Madeleine L’Engle recalls being rejected by yet another publisher on her fortieth birthday:

“I covered the typewriter in a great gesture of renunciation. Then I walked around and around the room, bawling my head off. I was totally, unutterably miserable.

Suddenly I stopped, because I realized what my subconscious mind was doing while I was sobbing: my subconscious mind was busy working out a novel about failure.

I uncovered the typewriter. In my journal I recorded this moment of decision, for that’s what it was. I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. It was not up to me to say I would stop, because I could not. It didn’t matter how small or inadequate my talent. If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing…Success is pleasant; of course you want it; but it isn’t what makes you write.”

Our secret insecurity is always focused on outcome, while our heart of hearts is always focused on coming out. Stepping out. Trying out. Striking out. And trying again. Because there is joy in showing up, because there is joy in becoming more who we already are.

No goals, no expectations, just freedom.

Revelry.

Play.

Hearts finally moving to the music they’ve been hearing all along. Souls transformed from wallflowers into dancers, falling into the arms of grace and being reminded: there is nothing to prove, our worth is not up for grabs, all that’s left to do is to enjoy who we are and to live it out in the world.  

On a Friday morning, as I hear the voice of grace, a different kind of sinking feeling happens—the thought sinks from my head to my heart, and my fingers come alive on the keyboard.

Meanwhile, outside my window, the wind blows fallen leaves like autumn tumbleweed. And I watch as a gray-bearded, retired man from down the block pushes a massive lawnmower up the middle of the street, toward the home of an old-ailing woman whose yard is buried in un-raked leaves. I watch as he runs his mower over the lawn and solves her leaf problem in a matter of minutes.

She’s not home.

She’ll never know who did it.

Will it matter to her? Maybe.

Does that matter to him? Nope.

I watch as he pushes his mower home. He’s not caring for his neighbor because it matters—he’s caring for his neighbor in spite of the fact it probably won’t matter. Because it’s who he is. Because he wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t do it.

Because growing up doesn’t mean becoming more mature—it means becoming more you.

If you were given permission to simply be more you, what would you do? Start speaking up? Standing up? Standing out? Walking out? Reaching out? Pouring out? Sitting in? Giving in? Giving up? Opening up? To what? Dance lessons? Photography school? Medical school? Dropping out of school? Starting a band? Starting a business? Starting a movement?Dominoes?

Why wait?

Listen for the still, small voice nudging you toward something good and challenging and beautiful and scary. Because your purpose isn’t to do something that is more meaningful—you’re purpose is to do something that is more you. And inside of that you will find all the meaning you can handle.

After all, you weren’t created to be successful. You were created to be you.

Question: What would you do in the world if you quit trying to prove you matter and instead simply started to live what you love? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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So, I’m writing a book. And one of the questions the book asks is, “What makes it hard to live from our true self? What makes it hard to put our hearts out into the world?” I’m an answer thief: that is, I steal my answers from the wisdom of others. Which is why I’m looking forward to chatting again about these questions during this Sunday’s Google Hangout (November 24 at 2pm CST). You folks are oozing insight, and I think our dialogue will multiply it for all of us. Click here to read more about how to join.

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Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Next Post: “Why I’m Grateful for Nothing This Thanksgiving”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jennifer Gan

    Thank you Kelly, I needed that today. Bless you as you make progress with your book. I can’t wait to read it! 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Likewise, Jen, I hope you’re fighting through the resistance and engaged with your craft, as well!

  • Emma M Sutton

    If I was more me in the world I would LISTERN, particularly to ME.

    Resonates with me as I attempt my Case Study!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Permission granted, Emma. Start to listen. To you! : )

  • Stephanie J

    Your words do matter, they created an a ha moment for me today! My life will change drastically if I stop stressing over outcomes, choose to live instead of prove, model for my kids “the art of being me” and encourage them to be who their heart tells them to be. Thank you for sharing this.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Stephanie, It was wonderful to read the post summarized so succinctly and beautiful. That’s the sign of a resonance that really can transform things. Your kids are lucky to have you as a mom!

  • Esther Litchfield-Fink

    I would write about my pain and not sugarcoat it. I love this post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Write away, Esther, even if it’s in the total privacy of your own four walls. Your pain into words with no sweetener. See where it leads you.

      • Esther Litchfield-Fink

        Yes, no sweetener. : )

  • Colleen Shields

    YES, we each matter – so ignore the ‘dissing’ chatter! (Hey, that rhymes – the start of an inspirational ‘Rap’ song, perhaps…?!)

    Anyway, ‘amen’, to another profound pondering into our common unconscious fragility. AS WELL AS: the possibility of hope, and healing, proffered from shattering the shame previously perpetuated by cementing silence.

    • drkellyflanagan

      There’s no doubt, shame shuts us down, Colleen. Amazing what can happen in a person when they stop listening to it. Speaking of listening to it, I’d be all ears for the rest of that rap song. : )

  • Doreen Matheny

    I found your page while reading another post “searching” for hope and I’m so glad I did. I just want to say that it would “matter” to me if you stopped writing!! This blog has been a light in a very dark place right now. I can hardly get through some of the posts without stopping to catch my breath or cry because I finally realize that I’m not alone and I matter. It ‘s as if I have my doubts and questions and I bring them to my source (my God) and he answers through you. It’s as if you have heard the conversations I have inside my heart and put them on paper. So the next time you hear that voice tell you it doesn’t matter please remember you don’t know whose life you may be saving with your words. You don’t know who is listening that may be ready to give up. I want to believe that just who I am matters and not what I “do” or don’t “do” but I’m not there yet. I’m not even sure who I am or how to answer that question “What would I do if I quit trying to prove I matter” It is where I have lived from for a very long time and a place the world wants to hold me hostage. I do what I love but people don’t always love what I do or even need what I do. I do it anyway. It is who I am but I know there is more and fear of failure and rejection are probably the biggest reasons people including myself don’t live to their full potential. Fear is paralyzing but I am hoping for a miracle and I don’t want to just walk agian I want to run and I believe I will one day. Thank you for this page it helps me to get through my day believing there is still hope for me!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Doreen, thank you for “showing up” here with this comment. I’m so glad you found the blog and that it’s given you a sense of companionship. You are definitely not alone. We don’t talk about some of this stuff in public, but we’re all wrestling with it on the inside. Glad to be wrestling alongside you!

  • Catharine Phillips

    This is lovely. Thank you. At 58 and three quarters, I’m finally figuring this out. (if children can count every day they’ve been alive… so can I). This is why I’ve stopped counting things I don’t want/need to count, and only figure the important pieces. Part of this for me is writing daily. Writing Something daily. Then posting it to the world in blog-form, and letting it go out into the ether. The other day a book title came floating through. So maybe there’s a book in there somewhere. I had the lovely gift of a friend publishing a poem I wrote in a book of his. So now I can say I’m already published, and not worry about counting publishing as a goal. Again: Good piece. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I’ve been amazed at how you write daily. But I’ve wondered if maybe that promotes the attention to detail in so much of your poetry. Kind of like, well, if I don’t know what to write, I’d better look closer? Well, whatever it is, keep writing, Catharine!

  • Just Thinkin’

    Kelly, very few people have your healing touch, and your deep, deep insight. I was profoundly affected by your original question, because on an initial assessment of my life, I don’t matter very much at all.

    But the more I read, the more I am challenged to reprogamme myself around this and reconsider my worth in the light of “self-worth” and not “other-worth”. It’s hard, because we all view ourselves to some extent as a projection of “what we think others think”, which complicates life immensely – it makes our “self” image a distorted image of what we think we heard, filtered through our fears and insecurities. So its actually no self image at all.

    To let go of “what we think others think” is a profound act of freedom. Thanks for waving the key in front of my face. Now, if your next post can be on the courage required to do this, we should have this whole affair pretty much sorted 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ha! Yes, the urge to have this whole affair sorted out and get it over with. : ) Vaughan, more and more, I’m thinking we get it backward. We think the courage must come before the doing. I’m starting to wonder if the doing gives rise to the courage. I feel like I’m learning this from the writing itself. Every time I sit down, I’m without courage. But if I make myself sit and do the writing, I have found my courage by the end of the session. Might this apply to other areas of life? What do you think?

  • karen eisele

    I grew up under the shadow of an older brother who everyone adored and thought could do no wrong. When teachers or other people did notice me it was almost with disappointment and a reminder that I was not like my brother. Even after his death at age 54 I still heard “If Steve was here… esp. if my dad wanted me to do something that I couldn’t. So pretty much my life was a series of trying to prove that I was as good if not better than my brother. My life became a contest-the prize was to become like Steve and have everyone accept me. But I was wrong. I was playing a Chess game that I could never win. So I did the only thing I could do. I quit! We grow up being told not to be a quiter. That there is no such word as “can’t” That we need to keep “our eye on the prize” That there is no room for failure etc. but i found that it is in ‘failure” that we win. The failure of following what I preceived others wanted me to be is freeing me to discover who I want to be. The failure to complete against others in the “”I am better then you game because..” is helping me to see that I don’t have to prove a thing. I am a winner to myself because I quit. As you wrote “Maybe we’d we free to quit the game of proof and get into the game of life…” Life is much more fun without the competition. Again thank you for giving voice to what we all struggle with and being a guide for my growth. Already I want to pre-order your book…
    PS. I have given myself permission to be more me byexploring
    buying miniatures. I love Military History and have always wanted to build a diorama of famous battles but never did since I thought people would frown at it since I am not your typical military buff being female and 59. Who knows where this will lead.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, you have great courage and you articulate yourself beautifully. That is a wonderful combination! Here’s to failing your way right into the joy of who you are. : )

  • Craig

    I think I would walk a little taller, choose more spontaneously, explore a few more paths in life, see things more colorfully, listen more openly, take deeper breaths, worry less, love my partner more selflessly, say no freely of shame, say yes with more heart, get out of the way more mindfully, be a truer more honest friend and colleague, and be more kind ….. to me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Dang. Amen.

  • Craig

    zefrank is a well known YouTube sensation whose unique blend creativity & humor is truly a gift. The link below is thoughtful video created by zefrank called “Fitting in Cardboard” that seemed fitting to share in the context of Kelly’s post: http://youtu.be/LwNJZUZFt-U

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for this, Craig!

    • karen Eisele

      Just had the chance to view this video and I am so glad you shared. it does speak volumes. Thank you.

  • bartskid1

    There are too many ways today to avoid feeling anything. We can be online for hours, watching TV etc., and never speak to another human being or feel for days. I don’t think anything about todays technology is healthy emotionally, or good for society as much as it is for companies. Today has more ways to isolate and avoid our true selves and become numb, not just to ourselves, but to other peoples feelings. This is seen daily in the lack of empathy we have towards our own people. I believe our ancestors were emotionally healthier than we are now. People should face each other and talk literally and deal with themselves and others one on one.. Anything else seems superficial.

  • Tara Lee

    Thank you for the awesome thought-provoking articles! I like how you said “because growing up isn’t about becoming more mature, it’s about becoming more you!” So true!!! Thank you for all the hard work you do to write intriguing articles! I am off to read some more!!! I came across your site because of an amazing article you wrote titled “Words from a Father to His Daughter from the Makeup Aisle” I highly recommend this article to everyone! It is a subject that needs to be discussed more often with this correct frame of mind laid out in the article. I love it!!!!
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-m-flanagan/words-from-a-father-to-his-daughter-from-the-makeup-aisle_b_4670638.html
    Thank you!!!
    liketaralee.com

    • drkellyflanagan

      Tara, I’m so glad we’ve connected in this way and some of my writing is resonating with you. Please always feel free to chime in here on the blog. I want to discuss this subject more going forward and would value your feedback!

  • Sad and Feeling Insignificant

    Thank you for providing an answer to this question that doesn’t invoke religion.

  • nicola

    For what it’s worth, your words do matter.Deeply.Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      And your words matter to me, Nicola. Thank YOU.

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