A Tribute to a Playful Poet and Peacemaker
By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.
Last week, Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek left his body. He was a mere 13 years of age and yet he lived a whole lifetime. In some ways, it was more than many will experience if they are fortunate to live well into their senior years. Mattie was an extraordinary young man. Even today, physicians still don’t know why Mattie did not die at birth because he suffered from an ugly strain of muscular dystrophy that takes most at a much younger age. In certain ways, Mattie was a miracle.
Mattie believed that God saved his life for a special purpose. He told Fox News, “God plays such an important role in my life. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on earth, I was born and went into arrest, I mean, I’ve already died twice and God really pulled me through and I believe it’s because I’m here for a reason.”
Many believe that that reason is so that Mattie could spread his inspirational message of peace and hope through his best selling books of poetry about his Heartsongs.
His poetry, which he began writing at age three, has touched the hearts and uplifted the spirits of countless many. With an impish grin and oversized glasses, part Yoda, part Gandhi; he displayed a spiritual maturity and poise well beyond his years.
He became a close friend of fellow peacemaker, President Jimmy Carter who said that Mattie told him, “I want people to know that in every life there are storms. But we must remember to play after every storm and to celebrate the gift of life as we have it, or else life becomes a task, rather than a gift. We must always listen to the song in our heart, and share that with others.”
Mattie was confined to a motorized wheelchair. His disease disrupted his autonomic functions such as breathing, digestion, and regulation of body temperature. It took the lives of three of his older siblings. Wherever he went he was on full life support, including a ventilator, oxygen tank, monitors, and a tracheotomy tube inserted in his throat. Through the course of each day, he had to endure countless medical treatments, some that hurt and some that didn’t, he said.
Despite the pain and struggle, Mattie celebrated life with joy. He said, “ I realize that we must all come together and pray together, even with different rituals and names for God; if we are to live together and be together. I accept that we are each here for just a brief time in the great scheme of things and that life is a fragile and blessed treasure. And I wish for the world a moment…a moment during which we all realize the angels that we can be to others, if we believe in the celebration of everyday life.”
When asked if he was angry, hurt, scared or frustrated, he admitted to these feelings, “Being angry and sad are the easiest responses. And even though they are natural and okay, it is so important to not get stuck in those responses. They waste energy if you get stuck in them. But if you open your heart and mind to brighter things, and to the everyday angels, somehow life is good, even when it is hard.”
On CNN’s Larry King Live, Mattie said, “Sometimes I say, Why me? Why do I have such a hard life? Why do I have this disease? Why do I have siblings who died? But then I think and say, Why not me? Better me than a kid who already has stress in his life. Or better me than a baby who wouldn’t understand it and has a better chance of hurting more.”
As Mattie began to write poetry, he began to delve into diverse themes, from peace and faith – to heartsongs. He said, “A heartsong is like your inner message. It’s your inner beauty. What you are meant to do in life. I mean we’re all there like a blank, we’re all one little piece and right now we’re just scattering the pieces. But if we took the time to put the inner beauty, all the pieces together, it would just be so wonderful.” When people take time to listen to their heartsongs, peace follows, he says. “We need to win the war on terrorism with words, not bombs,” he told USAToday.com.
In the Foreword to Journey Through Heartsongs, President Carter Wrote: “Mattie Stepanek is a personal friend and one of the most remarkable young people I have known. He wants to be a peacemaker and through his poems and own courageous example, he proves that finding peace within one’s self can lead to harmony among families, communities, and nations. With wisdom and uncomplicated vision Mattie reminds us how easy it is to forgive others, to find something amazing even in the most trivial things, and to celebrate the little gifts of life each day.”
Doors continued to open for Mattie. Last year, he collaborated with fifteen-year-old country singer Billy Gillman on Music Through Heartsongs, a CD based on Matttie’s poems. This past October the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services honored Mattie for his humanitarian endeavors, and the MDA named him to serve a rare third term in 2004 as MDA’s National Goodwill Ambassador.
Mattie’s faith was unshakeable. He said, “I know that God will always be with me to protect me. He saved my life, many, many times when I was a baby and even now, which means I have something to do on earth. I won’t let God down because he hasn’t let me down.”
Mattie hoped that after he was gone that people would remember to follow his message: “Ultimately, I would like to be remembered as Mattie. I would like people to remember to play after every storm and to take time to listen to heartsongs. We need to listen to our own song, and share it with others, but not force it on them. Our songs are different. They should be in harmony with each other. I would like to be remembered as a poet and peacemaker; and perhaps even a philosopher who took time to play.”