“I’m just trying to matter,” said June Carter Cash, the wife who lived in the shadow of singer Johnny Cash.
“I tell ya, I don’t get no respect,” tongue-in-check said comedian Rodney Dangerfield.
“Of what significance are the things you can forget,” said naturalist Henry David Thoreau.
The older people get the more they seem to dwell on these three concerns:
Did I matter?
Was I respected?
Was my life significant?
I’m a writer and author. My story topics are typically from yesteryear. The story readers are usually the past-50 age group. From talking with them, I’ve learned much about their sheltered values and goals.
What has surprised me most is many readers’ near obsession with “mattering,” their “significance” and how they will be “remembered.” I was shocked to realize that almost no one wants to be forgotten. To June Carter’s point, “mattering” matters much.
Prior to beginning a writing career I never once thought senior citizens could be “egotistical.” Not once did I imagine one being borderline narcissistic. In my mind, all more mature women were Aunt Bea from Mayberry and senior men were like John Boy Walton’s granddad from Walton’s Mountain.
What brought me to this discovery was reading the most popular book written by a person from my hometown. I read it twice. I reread the book not because it was a spellbinding page turner. I reread the epistle in an effort to determine why it was a local favorite. Like most things pertaining to human behavior, a single solid scientific reason for the book’s appeal could not be determined with any level of confidence. But, I still developed a theory regarding its popularity.
It was the exhaustive list of names written inside. No local person’s name was left out. This community bestseller read like a telephone book, having more names than Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, Crime and Punishment. No plot. No discernable storyline. No amazing revelations.
But the buyers of the book possessed one distinct demographic characteristic: they were uniformly all past the age of 50. These mature readers bought the book to witness their name printed inside.
In today’s world, people desperately desire two things: they want respect and they want to matter. In the autumn of their life they want to know that their having lived was significant. They also want to not soon be forgotten. What else could explain everything from elaborate tombstones, to college campus buildings, to sky scrapper towers with dead persons’ emboldened names showcased on them?
“Vanity. All is vanity,” wrote the wise, albeit depressed author of Ecclesiastes in The Holy Bible. Little about the human condition has changed since he wrote those words thousands of years ago. Now as then, humility is a rare quality to find in human beings.
But what makes older people lose their humility? What makes them become vain and manifest self-centeredness in their latter years?
This is an essay. As such I do not offer an answer or a five-step remedy to cure this identified social ill. Like a philosopher or a current day politician I merely describe my observation. But I do have a theory. I also have a personal plan of action that’s not recommended for all readers of this essay.
My plan is to become an elderly menace. I’ll be everyone’s worst enemy. None will envy or want to emulate me. On the day of my death, dancing will break out in the streets.
But, the day after the dancing stops, they’ll remember my name. I’ll have mattered. I will have had significance if only for that one day celebration of my having passed. And best of all, no major money will have been wasted on my vanity or the memory of me. That’s the plan!

Joe Cobb Crawford- Author
The Poetry Company