01/09/2015 03:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

3 Good Ways to Recognize You Matter


The smallest gestures can have great impact. Flute player at Occupy Wall Street protest/gathering. Photo courtesy of Jeff Pappas Photography. Visit his website.

I was 40 years old when my friend Tony confessed that my quitting excessive drinking/drugging and leaving San Francisco two decades before, inspired him to do the same. Learning this relieved the sting of middle age. I'd been squandering nights longing for a more seamless version of myself, tossing and turning over imaginary non-accomplishments. I hadn't yet published that novel. I hadn't rescued a child from a tsunami. I never shacked up with the right man.

The city streets Tony and I walked in the mid-90s were ancient history to me. The sunken faced girl reflected in the mirror back then was a character I occasionally referred to when I wanted to remind myself how much worse things had been. I had told her story so often it exhausted me, like staring at a sunless New England sky. That story felt irrelevant, almost a lie.

Tony's changed version of our experience surprised me. He helped me survive during those years, but I had no idea I helped him. I was grateful he reminded me of one way that I matter, and that I was always on the right road. It's impossible to really stray from our path because the choices we make never supersede the strength of our soul. We never live without purpose. Every person we encounter, from the gas station attendant to our grandmother is affected by us.

We may hold ourselves up against archetypes of the firemen and doctors of the world. Yet I suspect standing on that light bathed ground of the hereafter, many of us will recognize we inadvertently saved lives. None of us will die in vain. Forgetting this can be painful. It can lead us to do terrible things to ourselves.

Three good ways to recognize you matter.

1) Where ever you are, there you are.
My friend Rachel is a walking paradox. She has a Ph.D. in physics, and vacations at primitive camps in South America -- rolling dung to make fuel, learning Native languages, practicing telepathy. She rehabilitates injured squirrels in her apartment, keeps a bee hive on her roof and learned to read the bible in braille. She also worked in the financial district for 17 years for companies where nonconformists are mercilessly scapegoated.

Rachel had a love/hate relationship with her position. She often ate oatmeal for dinner as a child, and had gotten used to having money in adulthood. The linearity of her days suited her, and work challenged her acrobatic physicist trained mind. Still, office politics and schoolyard games wounded her.

One day a coworker revealed he was inspired by Rachel's free spirit; by her not flaunting makeup, skirt labels and other trappings; for her pure perseverance in solving financial conundrums.

Slowly, it dawned on her she was in the right place after all. She recognized, in an egoless way, she might be serving as an example to others.

Always consider your perception of significance of place may be illusory, that it's enough to stand where you are.

2) Admit what you don't know you did might have mattered.
It is when people feel most desperate and isolated that the smallest gestures mean the most. The music the busker plays may tug at a grieving man's heartstrings. A beauticians fingertips may provide consolation for a divorced woman. A nurse comforting an abused child may be remembered years later.

These are things we do, often for strangers, that we don't know mattered or remember when tallying our "life's worth."

Small gestures turned around my life.

I had quit speaking entirely for months in San Francisco. The city became a lonely, frightening place. One day I went to the supermarket -- pale, sleep starved, strung out. A cashier smiled and said something kind. I don't remember the words or her face -- only that I returned home and cried hysterically because somebody had troubled to see me.

Around that same time period, I read an article about a woman in solitary confinement for years. She was rarely allowed out of her cell, was fed through a slot in the wall and taunted by guards. Her story put things into perspective. Comparatively, I thought, I wasn't so isolated after all.

I volunteered to write for a prison newsletter and started attending protests at prisons I stood there, tying ribbons on barbed wire fences, marching. The raw caring voices of the other protesters chanting for men and women inside, slowly, restored faith to me.

Never underestimate the power of your own presence. The cashier, the woman in the magazine, the protesters, will never know the significance they had on my life.


Never underestimate the power of your own presence. Be kind. Photo courtesy of Jaff Pappas Photography.

3) Kindnesses come back, often when you least expect it. Pay it forward
I've been too broke to buy food and borderline homeless. I never take shelter and a full refrigerator for granted.

I didn't remember offering my old friend Anna a place to crash when she was going through a tough time. Years later, my relative desperately needed housing and I put feelers out. Anna took him in, no questions asked, because she said she never forgot my offer. That reminder was a gift. Likewise, my relative will always remember her kindness.

Things you do for others may not always come back to you directly. The person you helped may help a stranger because he remembers your kindness, who helps a stranger remembering his. These gestures are like pieces of colored glass that get tossed into the deep sea. They may be battered by waves and remain adrift for years but eventually, they beach on shore; beautiful opaque shapes that become somebody's treasure.

If you have a hankering to do something drastic -- become a fire walker, adopt a child, travel to Guam -- by all means, investigate.

However, when you are feeling least relevant it's often enough to take a leap of faith and trust you're here and breathing and therefore you matter. A kind word, a gesture, simply being present can be miraculous.