HomeOpinion & AnalysisWhat’s the matter?

What’s the matter?

by Tim Middleton

We hear a baby cry, a dog bark, a child scream, a car hoot, a crowd boo, and what do we say: What’s the matter? In doing so, we are asking, what is wrong?
Something must have happened to have caused the actions, but we do not know what it is. Why is the baby crying? Is it hunger, pain, discomfort, frustration, what? What is the matter? We do not see what is happening, but we know something is happening because of the effect it has on someone.

There is a famous old nursery rhyme which began, “O dear, what can the matter be? Dear, dear, what can the matter be? O dear, what can the matter be? Johnny’s so long at the fair.” It went on to describe what Johnny had promised to do, but had not achieved. In more recent times schoolchildren developed their own playground version of it, which went, “Oh, dear, what can the matter be, seven old ladies were locked in the lavatory, they were there from Monday till Saturday, and nobody knew they were there.” Interestingly, long before that, in 1864, another parody of it had been sung in the US: “Oh, dear, what can the matter be? Oh, dear, what can the matter be? Oh, dear, what can the matter be? Parents don’t visit the school… They visit the circus, they visit their neighbours; They visit their flocks and the servant who labours; They visit the soldiers with murderous sabres; Now, why don’t they visit the school?” Oh, dear, what can the matter be?

Of course, if we ask a scientist what the matter is we will get a very different answer. The universe, we are taught, is made up of matter, bouncing off and colliding into each other, being pulled in different directions. In fact, they will tell us that the vast majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, of particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light. It cannot be seen directly, but we know it exists because of the effect it has on objects that we can actually see.

In truth, therefore, everything (and, therefore, everyone) matters. However, when we hear a lady sing, a girl laugh, or see a child smile, a man wave we do not say, what’s the matter with you? There is nothing the matter with them! But it does matter, in the sense that it is important; we want them to smile, laugh, sing and wave. So, what is the matter is not simply about what is wrong. It does not really matter what car we drive, what school we attended, what shops we visit; it does not really matter if we wear a suit or jacket and trousers; if we put on a tie or not, if we have our shirt in or out — the effect on others will not be significant or serious. After all we may dress smartly, but address people rudely — the seen is not as important as the unseen.

As with the universe as a scientific whole, what is unseen in our lives, the dark matter, still matters very much. It matters because it has value. People matter far more than possessions. Lives matter more than lies. Values matter far more than victories. Principles matter much more than privileges. Rights matter. This is all because these things, like all matter, have an effect on us all. Most of these things, like dark matter, are unseen but are still very much real. It is the dark matter that makes up the vast majority of what happens in our lives as well, the things we do not see. In 2007 a film called Dark Matter picked up on this theme as it follows an extremely talented young scientist studying Dark Matter at university who came up against the dark forces of “politics, ego, and cultural insensitivity”. Oh, dear, much was the matter there!

We need to be educating our youngsters to understand that everything that we do matters because it has an effect on someone, somewhere, somehow. Another old nursery rhyme began with, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” and concluded that, “There was an old lady who swallowed a cow; I don’t know how she swallowed a cow! She swallowed the cow to catch the goat, she swallowed the goat to catch the dog, she swallowed the dog to catch the cat, she swallowed the cat to catch the bird, she swallowed the bird to catch the spider that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her! She swallowed the spider to catch the fly; I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die!” Then we have the last verse: “There was an old lady who swallowed a horse;… She’s dead, of course!” We will be dead, of course, if we do not realise what is the matter. What can the matter be? Our children do not do what they can promise to achieve; our children are stuck and nobody seems to know it; parents don’t think of education. That may well be why the baby is crying.

l Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.

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