A Place on the Ladder: Notes from Sibling Rivalry

It was a Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball card, blue and shiny and highly-coveted by Little […]

CJ Green / 5.28.14

1999It was a Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball card, blue and shiny and highly-coveted by Little Leaguers everywhere. Packed in with four other no-names, it was a diamond in the rough. It was mine. My brother, a year older, couldn’t believe I was so lucky—Ken Griffey, Jr.—so he proceeded to sneakily remove it from my collection and place it in his own. I can’t remember exactly what happened next but, after many tears and a flurry of hand-to-hand combat, the card lay discarded on the ground with creases running over Ken’s face. My Ken Griffey card. But wasn’t it just a bit of paper with some stats on the back? It was, but that was not the point. This wasn’t just a fight over some baseball card. This was indirect fire from a much greater conflict: years of brother-against-brother war.

I admit that as a kid I didn’t care much for baseball cards. Those were the days I had committed to cross-dressing and flower-picking. MLB cards were the last thing on my mind. My brother, conversely, flourished in sports and schoolyard intimidation. I think God must’ve thought it a good joke sticking two wildcards like us in one household, separated by a mere three feet in our bedroom and sixteen months of age. For me, that Ken Griffey card was a rare, shining opportunity to wield the sort of power my brother naturally possessed.

Rivalry perhaps understates the relationship we developed. I can recall a season when we set out declaring all the activities at which we could best each other. His tally board far exceeded mine. That said, I was the baby, and he was the middle child, which meant that no matter how many medals he acquired, he shared the limelight with my rosy cheeks. Surely, my parents were fair and still are (thankfully not a Genesis 25.28 situation), but even if the limelight existed only in our heads, still, it was there. In Mockingbird’s guide to Genesis, Eden and Afterward, Will McDavid explains the ancient biblical rivalry, writing,

Self-consciousness, in the negative sense, is simply a preoccupation with your place on the ladder combined with the intention to ascend it. Psychologically, if Abel is the only other man on Earth…then it would seem as if Cain can be rid of his unrighteousness simply by killing him.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 12.56.12 PMIt’s natural to seek righteousness by trumping the one pointing out your shortcomings. For me, it only takes a moment to conjure up memories of this exact desire (this morning). One of the easiest ways to silence my own inadequacy seemed to be challenging my brother’s adequacy. Growing up next to him, I took every opportunity to take him by the heel and launch myself forward.

My first semester of college was also my first time reading Genesis. I was startled by how this story reflected my own. I was there, reflected in the fallen characters, men and women scrambling to justify themselves. Cain versus Abel. Isaac versus Ishmael. Jacob versus Esau. Particularly interesting is the Leah versus Rachel throwdown. Leah, hiding in the darkness of a marriage tent, tricks Jacob into marrying her by pretending to be her prettier sister, Rachel. McDavid writes that, like Leah,

We too try to earn love through deception, presenting “better” versions of ourselves to family, friends, and even (especially) ourselves. Our true selves are obscured and therefore unloved.

As Leah hides in the darkness, so I see myself hiding in my work, always trying to outdo my brother by projecting a “better” self. The world rewards this, with medals, awards, whatever. When sports seasons end, when college admissions fade, when GPAs become a thing of the past, all our attempts to self-justify crumble like that Ken Griffey Jr. baseball card. Our desperate aims to project higher-quality versions of ourselves only reveal that identity remains tremulous if not rooted in the One who bested everyone: who conquered the world, not by flashing science fair medals or a fat salary, but with rusty nails in his hands and blood on his chest. And by his gracious death and resurrection, we no longer have to worry how we measure-up, to our brothers or anyone. God understands our rivalrous hearts and works through them, guiding us further into his providence.