In his 13 years on Earth, Mattie Stepanek touched millions with his message of peace, including his friend, former President Carter. Before Mattie succumbed to mitochondrial myopathy in 2004, he and Carter penned a book together, "Just Peace." You can read an expert from the book below.
Hope is a garden
Of seeds sown with tears,
Planted with love
Amidst present fears.
Excerpt from "About Hope," May 21, 2003, by Mattie J.T. Stepanek, in Reflections of a Peacemaker: A Portrait Through Heartsongs
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005)
Mattie J. T. Stepanek envisioned a world at peace. He believed that people are inherently good and generous, and that life is sacred and worthy of celebration. He was committed to making a positive difference in a world filled with conflict by gently reminding people about peaceful attitudes and habits that create a harmonious reality. And from a very early age, Mattie exemplified his personal philosophy that motivated him to cope with the many challenges of his own life, filled with disability and death and a desire for peace: "Remember to play after every storm."
Mattie was always thinking and planning, playing and pondering, and excitedly working on many projects that reflected his varied interests. He spent hours building new Lego creations, and hours scheming his next round of practical jokes. There were hours devoted to designing comic strips and characters, and hours recording his never-ending "Top Ten" lists in every category imaginable (including lists of "things to list"). Many hours passed negotiating with his health-care providers as he procrastinated over painful but necessary medical procedures, and many hours passed just sipping a cup of tea and enjoying a game of chess. But more than anything else, Mattie spent countless hours reading and writing and considering all the different ways he could share his message of hope and peace with the world.
Like many other children, Mattie was frequently asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" His response was not a typical one, though: "I want to be a peacemaker. . . . I want to serve as an ambassador for humanity through my thoughts and words and actions." And, like many other children who have life-threatening conditions that may prevent them from living long enough to "grow up," Mattie was asked on numerous occasions to share his "top three wishes." There are wonderful organizations that strive to grant at least one of three wishes for a child who is challenged by the reality of a shortened life span. Most children's wishes include trips to theme parks, shopping sprees, or meeting a favorite celebrity. Again, Mattie's "three wishes" response was not typical:
I wish to have at least one of my collections of Heartsongs poetry published as my gift to the world. I wish to have Oprah Winfrey share the message of hope and peace in my Heartsongs on her show because people turn to her for inspiration and direction. And, I wish to have fifteen minutes to talk peace with Jimmy Carter so that I can make sure I am doing all that I can and should be doing to become a peacemaker for others.
During June 2001, when it became very clear that Mattie was edging closer to the probability of imminent death, the medical professionals at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., inquired about his wishes. Like others, they suggested "a computer" or other alternate wish-fulfillment ideas, because his three wishes were not considered "fantasy" or "practical" and, thus, did not fit the protocol of most wish-granting organizations. But Mattie never wavered from his goal of becoming a peacemaker, nor from his top three wishes of offering gifts to the world that would last beyond his mortality. His doctors were so moved by his sincerity that they asked the public relations office to at least explore the remote possibility that any one of Mattie's wishes could be granted.
Within days, a local family-run publishing company offered to reproduce one of Mattie's collections of Heartsongs poetry, and even stage a "mock booksigning" for him at the hospital. When they read through Mattie's materials, however, they made plans to offer him an actual contract for authentic publication of what they considered very creative and powerful poetry. Oprah Winfrey, who happened to be in the area that week, read an article in the local newspaper about Mattie and his wishes, and vowed to share his message on her show in the fall when her taping season resumed. And, Jimmy Carter telephoned the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and spent fifteen minutes conversing with and answering the questions of a ten-year-old boy who was passionate about life and peace.
Throughout his "almost fourteen" years of life, Mattie composed thousands of poems, essays, and journal entries about the world as he saw it, filled with grief and growth, disaster and delight, compassion and catastrophe. He published six best-selling volumes of his poetry, and contributed passages or chapters to numerous writing projects of other people. He participated in hundreds of interviews for television, magazines, and newspapers, and he delivered dozens of speeches -- about peace, about disability, about facing death, about celebrating life, about being an advocate, about education, about decision making, about spirituality -- to politicians, to schoolchildren, to business leaders, to youth groups, to medical professionals, to university students -- to any size group of any nature who gathered to listen to his inspirational message of hope. But the project that became Mattie's greatest passion was writing a book about the simple yet profound endeavor of planning peace.
In December 2001, Mattie had the honor and privilege of meeting his "real-life hero for peace," former President Jimmy Carter. The two met on the set of Good Morning America, as the hosts introduced the books each of them had recently published. Mattie was elated when he realized that he was really sitting next to his hero, and not a celebrity look-alike (which was his first thought when told that Jimmy Carter was in the studio). A day or so later, he and Jimmy began what would become an ongoing, and oftentimes intense personal friendship via phone calls, regular e-mail correspondence, and occasional opportunities to work together in person.
Through their Internet dialogues, Mattie and Jimmy swapped funny stories and kept each other informed of day-to-day happenings. They exchanged thoughts and insights on current events, and they chatted about lessons learned from personal experiences -- some of them joyful and some of them painful. Mattie also shared his feelings on being a young teenager reckoning with his own early death, and Jimmy supported him through many emotional challenges as Mattie's body slowly died despite his strong and determined mind and spirit. And through their e-mails, they discussed the evolving plans for a book Mattie invited Jimmy to work on with him. Mattie was thrilled when Jimmy not only supported his notion of the venture, but also pledged to help make the project, as Mattie was planning it, a reality.
Mattie titled the book Just Peace because of the many connotations of the word just, especially as the various meanings complemented the multifaceted concept of peace. In his journal, Mattie wrote:
Either of the two words in this chosen title deserve considerate deliberation. "Just" can imply now, recently, lately, or very soon; it can imply only, solely, barely, exactly, entirely, or perfectly; it can also imply simply, really, truly, clearly, or specifically; or, it can imply impartial, honest, moral, honorable, truthful, fair, right, or equitable. "Peace" can imply calm, quiet, stillness, tranquility, or silence; it can imply harmony, serenity, concord, or amity; it can also imply understanding, reconciliation, agreement, compromise, synchronization, good will, or good relations; or, it can imply ceasefire, end of war, freedom from strife, or lack of violence. These are only a few of the many denotations and connotations and incredible power of the phrase "just peace."
The purpose of the book was to offer insights on why conflict and violence exist in a world filled with people who are generally and genuinely good, and to explore the potential impact and current justification of war in modern society. Most of all, Mattie wanted to share his thoughts on the "profound simplicity of choosing and planning peace, if it is deemed something that really matters in all aspects of thinking and speaking and being."
Some of the material for the book would come from an integration of Mattie's research, reflections, and recommendations about the situation of violence and war and the need for justice and peace. But a large part of the book was to be based on interviews Mattie would conduct with others who were endeavoring to seek peace and justice for individuals or groups of people around the world. The peacemakers Mattie hoped to include in this project would represent many different nations and many different concepts essential to a just peace, such as the equitable provision of basic needs to all people, the application of humanitarian laws in all places, and the security of human and civil rights across all cultures.
Mattie died before being able to complete his planned work for this book. Much of the last few years of his life were spent battling his neuromuscular disease in the hospital as his health steadily declined, though his love and optimism for people and life and the future never wavered. He spent his final six months of life literally struggling to breathe in the intensive care unit, but determined to go on "even a bit longer," and ever-dedicated to realizing his vision of Just Peace.
Because of the amount of time he spent in the hospital, and because of the many medical and physical complications from the progression of his neuromuscular disease, Mattie never had the opportunity to do any of the interviews that were to become the core of this book. However, because of his untiring allegiance to the possibility of peace, and the many hours, weeks, and months of work he had put forth in his efforts to study, plan, and create the vision for this book, Mattie laid the groundwork for the completion of this project. Mattie's body died on June 22, 2004, less than a month before his fourteenth birthday. While he never had the opportunity to grow old and fulfill an adult career aspiration, his spirit grew strong, and the gifts of his thoughts and words and actions will touch lives in many nations and across many generations. His message of hope lives on through the words he offered us in his journals, essays, poems, speeches, letters, notes . . . even in his lists of things that merited recording. And from his top three wishes, which were all generously fulfilled by so many people, came the opportunity for Mattie to become what he wanted to be when he grew up . . . an ambassador for humanity.
In the months after his death, I gathered, sorted, and compiled as much of Mattie's material as I could find related to this project. I was determined to fulfill my reassurance and my promise to my son during the hours before his death, that he had indeed been the best person he could be, that he had done everything a person could do to make a gentle and positive difference in life, and that he had completed enough of the work on this project that the book Just Peace would become a reality. Through it all, Jimmy Carter remained faithfully committed to the completion of this project as well, and he actively supported Mattie's request that the book be finished and published so that his message of hope could continue to touch the world.
While the project could not be completed in the way Mattie originally planned -- integrating the insights and experiential lessons of peacemakers through a series of interviews -- the book follows Mattie's original outline and addresses each goal he considered essential for planning a just peace. The manuscript is organized into three sections that explore Mattie's concept of the world and all people as a unique mosaic of gifts, the shattering of this mosaic due to ongoing violence and escalating destruction associated with war and injustice, and the rebuilding of the mosaic through the endeavor of planning peace.
Each section contains two essays from Mattie's work, related to thematic issues tackled in that section. The essays are woven together with other sources of communication from Mattie, including selections of his poetry about peace and portions of his e-mail correspondence with several individuals. Some of the e-mails are related to his advocacy work with organizations that support children and families, or from the transference of academic assignments to home or school teachers, or from his responses to catastrophic events in the world. Most of the e-mails, though, come from the many Internet conversations between Mattie and Jimmy Carter as these two peacemakers coped with life and hoped for the future through mutual support and goals.
And so, in the pages of this book, readers are offered Mattie's vision for a world at peace. Glimpses of Mattie's struggles to find peace on his personal journey through life are found in his autobiographical notes and communications. And there are formal passages presenting synthesized reflection and research, as Mattie shares his perceptions of and propositions for a world in conflict. But throughout each section of this book, Mattie's message is clear: Peace grows from the choices we each make, in our attitudes and in our habits, which become our reality now, and the echo of our essence in the future.
Sadly, Mattie is not physically here to witness the assemblage and presentation of his efforts. Joyously, though, Mattie never intended this book to be a personal achievement or even a culmination or completion of his endeavor to spread a message of hope and to nurture justice and peace. The project of Just Peace merely begins with this book; it continues through the ongoing commitment of individuals and organizations to make a positive difference, right here and throughout the world, right now and throughout the future. The endeavor now belongs to each of us, as we accept Mattie's simple gift and his profound challenge?to reflect and reason on the important matter of these issues, these thoughts, this message of hope, and the possibility of a just peace.
By Jimmy Carter
Peace has eluded mankind since the beginning of time. Entire institutions with multimillion-dollar budgets pay highly skilled negotiators to go out into the world for the purpose of peacemaking; government agencies are established for the peaceful resolution of issues that divide cities, states, and whole nations; we individuals spend much of our lives seeking inner peace. Still, turmoil, conflict, and war continue to afflict us.
So how could one small boy presume to reach such an unattainable goal? Since I have raised four precocious children of my own and enjoy a close relationship with eleven grandchildren who never cease to amaze me with their mature grasp of difficult concepts, I was not surprised by the notion. However, I was touched by the depth of passion and awed by the firm resolve with which Mattie Stepanek pursued a dream that has evaded men and women throughout history.
What began as a casual discourse, not too different from others I have had with inquisitive young people who have reached out to me, became a treasured and enlightening friendship that changed my life forever. With the purity of heart that only a child can possess, and the indomitable spirit of one who has survived more physical suffering than most adults will ever know, Mattie convinced me that his quest was not inconceivable. Inspired by his enthusiasm and without reservation, I committed to a partnership with him.
Though he was called to Heaven before completing the project as he had planned it, the message in Mattie's essays and correspondence is simple and clear. Listen to his Heartsong that reverberates throughout the pages that follow, learn to hear your own, and you, too, will be emboldened to take up the challenge of the ages: Just Peace. These words of wisdom and inspiration came from the most remarkable person I have ever known.