Written by Beth Meyer
All my life I have wondered if I matter.
Even before my first viewing of the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, I wondered if I wasn’t here, would it make any difference. As a little girl, listening to my parents argue over our household’s lack of money, I would sit on the edge of my bed and wish I could just disappear. One less mouth to feed would help my parents and I didn’t think anyone would really notice or care that I was gone.
In elementary school, I wasn’t a super star but just one more child showing up every day in my navy-blue school uniform, never getting into trouble, always respectful of the scary nuns, sitting on the fringe of the more popular kids. My presence on the playground wasn’t noticed or needed.
My household’s ongoing struggles with near poverty, ensured there would be no music lessons, dance classes, or Girl Scouts. No activities to help me learn how to be a part of something larger than my isolated world. In my world, I spent my days buried in Nancy Drew books wishing I had two best girlfriends and a kind, successful father. When my mother would force me outside, I would ride my bicycle alone on dusty country roads, occasionally stopping to climb a local farmer’s fence to entice one of his horses to wander over to me so I could stroke its silky coat.
High school was just a bigger arena in which to hide. There were no reasons why I should be noticed. If the floor opened in Biology class and I disappeared, I seriously doubted if anyone would even mention it to the teacher. Yes, I did have a few friends but frankly we were lumped together as either nerds or brainiacs and the cool kids never socialized with us. I never went to single dance in high school because no one ever asked me out. The night of my senior prom I spent alone because even my nerdy friends managed to have dates due to last minute date negotiations. My name either didn’t come up as a potential prom date or if it was, it was rejected.
My only highlights in high school were strictly academic and even those accomplishments didn’t really matter. Polite applause at an awards banquet with a certificate suitable for framing heralded my accomplishments.
Going away to college, reinforced my thoughts that I didn’t matter. College professors don’t care if you show up for class, do an assignment or drop their class. I didn’t hang out with my roommates primarily because they never asked me to join them, and I wasn’t confident enough to ask. While they were out having fun, I stayed behind in our room or in the student lounge. I couldn’t afford to join any organization that required special equipment, travel or initiation fees. Sometimes I would attend my school’s athletic events and sit close, but not too close, to a group of students so it looked like I was part of a group. How sad was that behavior?
Four years of school, financed by scholarship money and a 3.8 grade point, enabled me to get a degree and to live on my own for the majority of the time. My family saw me during holiday breaks, but it was evident that life had gone on for them. No one bothered to write to me while I was away at school and long-distance phone calls were only placed infrequently. I literally felt as if I was stranger within my own family. At twenty-two years of age, I still had doubts if I mattered to my family.
The military offered me the opportunity to attend graduate school, see the world and serve my country. I embraced the rigidity of military service and liked the fact that everyone in the military had the same issue that I had had for years. I didn’t matter. If I wasn’t at my duty station, then someone else took my place, and life moved on. Sure, there were consequences of my absence but finally I had real proof that I didn’t matter.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and sadly those doubts still linger but not nearly as much as they did when I was younger. A successful career in the military, graduate school, a supportive husband, loving children, and a challenging post-military career gave me the confidence I was so sorely lacking for most of my life. I was respected and liked by the people in my life. My opinions were solicited, my ideas were implemented, and my feelings were considered. But though my life is full, and I am happy, I still have moments when I wonder if I matter.
A stinging criticism from my boss, a hurtful comment from a friend or a dismissive phrase from my husband will send me back in time to my childhood and my wish that I could just disappear. Years of counseling have helped and made me understand that my feelings were rooted not in my DNA but in my childhood. My parents’ focus was on surviving their own problems and not on nurturing their scared little girl who wondered if she mattered.
Sadly, she still wonders.