Mattie Stepanek: A life with perspective

Negative news coverage — be it coverage of the global healthcare crisis that AIDS continues to cause, humanitarian need in the Sudan or another U.S. casualty in Iraq – seems to increasingly crowd out stories of hope and promise of the human spirit. Simply put, upbeat stories don’t cause the sort of shock and awe that our 24-hour news bombardment requires to keep the attention of viewers.

A recent story, however, certainly helps put our lives in perspective. Former president Jimmy Carter, who has traveled to more than 120 countries, stated that “the most extraordinary person” he has ever known is Mattie Stepanek, a mature 13-year-old poet and frequent guest of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live and numerous morning shows, who passed away after a lifelong battle with a rare form of muscular dystrophy.

Mattie could have reacted differently to his struggle with mitochondrial myopathy, an illness that affected his heart rate and impaired his breathing, blood pressure and digestion. His three younger siblings had passed away from the same rare disorder, and his mother, Jeni, suffers from the adult form of the illness, but was unaware of it before she had children. Instead of focusing on what he could not do, Mattie chose to use his years to influence others.

In addition to being the national goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association from 2002 until he passed away, Mattie also wrote five volumes of poems that quickly found their place at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. His main theme was what he termed “heartsongs.” A heartsong, in his own words, “is the song in your heart that wants you to help make yourself a better person, and to help other people do the same.”

While a certain amount of Mattie’s success with his volumes of poetry can be attributed to his numerous television appearances over the years, Mattie truly succeeded because he expressed the same human qualities and fears that we all have while still showing the maturity that many senior to him can only hope to attain. In February 2003, Larry King asked if he feared dying. The reply was, “I actually fear more how I’m dying, not when I’m dying. But I don’t want to die anytime soon. I’ve got a lot to do while I’m here and I hope I can do it.”

Mattie had lofty goals. He wanted to co-author a book, which he intended to call “Just Peace,” with former President Carter. He also wanted to talk peace with Osama Bin Laden and even to father seven children. Although these goals were never fully realized, he did manage — whether through sharing his dream of world peace and overcoming life’s difficulties at the International Society of Poets Convention and Symposium, or being buried with, among other things, stuffed animals and his remote control Whoopie Cushion — to achieve his goal of being recognized as a “poet, a peacemaker and a philosopher who played.”

Mattie’s life experiences and the poetry he used to communicate his thoughts and ideas to others certainly put into perspective the relative triviality of the small problems that we face in our own lives. Somehow, after reading his poems about the rain or even about vultures playing, our problems as students seem rather miniscule and embarrassing to worry over for very long. The occasional aggressive driver or inability to register for a required class seems to matter less in the greater scheme of living life and fostering successful relationships with others. While they are aggravating, these common problems that we face need to be put into a greater perspective from time to time.

Not to say that things can’t be better or that changes should not be made — but our daily lives must truly be understood as part of a continuum of the goals we have set and the meaning that our lives will have to future generations. In a story easily forgotten in the midst of fast-paced lives and negative news, Mattie first listened to his heartsong and then implored us to “remember to play after every storm.”

Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in chemistry.