by Michael T. McRay “On April 9, 1989, it was 364 days until I turned one.”
If I tried to write the story of my life, this might well be the opening sentence. I have always anticipated the next thing in my life; discontentment has been constant. I tend to wait impatiently for, and perhaps even sprint toward, the next adventure, pursuit, achievement, or goal.
Once, when my Saturday night prison group was reading Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks by Jon Sweeney, we gathered at Riverbend prison to discuss that week’s chapter on ambition. Tony, a spry Southern man whose radical self-acceptance includes abandoning all social discretion, glanced at me and asked, chuckling, “So Michael, what did you think of this?” I can still hear the immediate collective laughter.
What Tony, and clearly everyone in the room, knew was that I am ambitious. I consistently seem to have another trip planned, another project in the works, another, another, another… My friends lead similar lives, which is why we rarely see each other. We are all so busy trying to do good work that we struggle to find time for each other. We all want to matter.
David Dark once said that my generation (children of the 80s and 90s) suffers from the pressure to “hurry up and matter.” Those four words simultaneously overwhelm and liberate me: the truth of that statement involves an expectation that can be difficult to live up to, while the ability to identify that expectation alleviates some of the anxiety the expectation itself produces. Name it to tame it, they say. Most of my life, commercials, billboards, and social media memes have told me to leave my mark in the world. “What will be your legacy?” We need to matter in our lives, we believe, and we need to matter now. In a fast-food, instant-communication, Amazon-Prime world, the Snickers’ question is powerful: “Why wait?” I’ve always hated waiting.
In John Paul Lederach’s magnificent book The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, he writes that in peacebuilding we too often feel the pressure to “stop sitting there and doing something!” Work needs to be done, so get up and do it. While this is certainly true, the art of building peace also involves vigilance and patience, he argues, like watching spiders weave webs. We must accept that much of life exists beyond our control, and sometimes our task is simply to stop doing something and sit there, watching and waiting for how we might participate in or witness with gratitude the goodness that grows without us.
Certainly, the urge to hurry up and matter need not be negative. The nature of the mattering here is important. Mattering looks different to different people. For me, it has meant living well Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to be among and serve “the least of these.” In my theology, Matthew 25 is what Jesus said truly matters—not what we believe, but how we’ve loved. People suffer, and too many people suffer alone. What matters is our healing, partnering presence among such broken, beautiful people.
But my definition of “to matter” sadly has often not ended here. For most of my life, I have wanted to be seen as important and successful, to do big things that people will recognize and applaud. “More!” my ambition screams. “I need more!” I know I am not alone in this. But why do we need to do great things? Why must we hurry up and matter? It seems to me we are a “works driven” people: we believe we are saved by our deeds and are valued by our work—both in quality and quantity. We are told we’re good because of what we do and how well we do it. If we are relevant, then we are worthy.
This, of course, is a lie. When “hurry up and matter” tempts us to deny our inherent value as imago dei, to diminish the value of human beings in favor of human doings, then “hurry up and matter” becomes poisonous. People incapable of work and success in the way we often desire it become people lacking value. Perhaps even worse, they may then become projects for our paternalism, tools we use to prove that we do in fact matter because we are doing important work for them and therefore are good. We become misguided: we do not love because it is good and beautiful to do so, or because there is no other way to live well, or because we cannot survive without each other; rather we “love” because that is how we know we’ve mattered. Loving does matter, but love must live for the sake of love itself, not for the cause of vainglory.
I confess I’ve been guilty of the above. I want to believe Mother Theresa when she said we need not do great acts of love, but rather small acts with great love. But I’ve preferred the great acts, because those are easier for people to see. In this way, ambition and the urge to matter combat humility. They disturb serenity and fuel egotism, making little room for God or the greater Body of Christ.
As I write this, I am en route to begin a three-month storytelling project on reconciliation in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda. (Again, my urge to do big things.) Perhaps this work really does matter. I like to think it does. I like to think it is another opportunity to learn how to embrace “hurry up and matter” as prompting toward doing the good work of loving and listening, simply because it is wonderful and life-giving to do so. My job is not to change or save the world; my task is to care for whatever corner of the world I may find myself, gently and fiercely loving all in my path. My friend Richard Goode tells me that we plant the seeds and God takes care of the rest. Maybe he’s right.
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is currently spending three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.” He is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.