I grew up the youngest of four kids. My parents were accomplished professionals. My siblings were all over-achievers. I’ll try to spare you all the details but to create a bit of context, I must state that all three older siblings graduated from the prestigious University of Virginia, Charlottesville: the college founded by Thomas Jefferson. Two of my three older siblings have doctorate level degrees & I am the only offspring of my parents to have just one Bachelors degree. The one sibling who chose not to pursue a doctorate level degree works as an IT professional with aspirations to become a network engineer. I’m the youngest by a wide gap in my family so by the time it came to me, my parents were able to ease up on their level of involvement. The blueprint was already in place; my path had already been laid out. I knew what I had to do & that was to measure up to those over-achievers who came before me. And no one sibling embodied that standard of excellence more so than “the middle child.” We will just call him J. As an adult, you will discover J to be one of the most humble men you could ever meet. He is, however, the kind of person who would get on your nerves if you are a person who wants to cruise through life. He holds himself to a standard of excellence that he has rarely failed to uphold himself, he can’t understand when others cannot do the same. As a child, no one mentored me more than J other than my parents. Sometimes, J supported me even more so than they did. But on my path to adulthood, my biggest supporter became my biggest rival. In order for me to prove my value to The Family, I had to do the UNTHINKABLE! I had to beat J.
J is currently a successful MD with a family of his own similar to the family we grew up in. Although he didn’t study technology in college, he is also the medical liason to the team in charge if implementing & maintaining the electronic medical record system in his network. I won’t leave you in further suspense: I failed miserably at beating J.
Truthfully, looking at my adult life from an outside lens, you might be tempted to perceive my life as–to use a phrase associated with clandestine special warfare–“a total mission failure.” I don’t have nice cars, I don’t have a nice house, I haven’t started a family—okay, enough self-deprecation–you get it. For a long time, I did feel like a failure. But I no longer do. The great Magic Johnson summed it up best when questioned about his friendship with Isiah Thomas. He essentially said that in order to become a champion, you have to create a level of hatred for your opponent. That’s the price to pay. Now, I wouldn’t dare compare my competitive spirit to that of Magic Johnson. Still, I don’t easily back down from challenges & growing up, I have exhibited flashes of my own fierce competitive spirit. I never hated by brother, but there were times when I was jealous of his accomplishments because every accomplishment he secured meant one other obstacle that I had to overcome. It seemed as if my Dad would never accept me unless I did exactly what J did. If I came in 3rd, he would remind me that J had come in 1st. As a boy, I was conditioned to win my father’s acceptance–even if that meant defeating my own dear brother J. The more my Dad demanded, the more I resented J for making my life so much harder than it should have been. But then I realized that it was useless for me to compete; I wasn’t J.
I cannot describe the sense of relief I finally felt once I arrived at this realization. It felt good to be able to embrace my brother’s successes wholeheartedly again; & I was ashamed to recognize that for a time in my life, I could not. His accomplishments weren’t about me. He had no obligation to “ease up” on his goals in life just because I couldn’t keep up. It took me a while to realize, but his accomplishments were my accomplishments because he was my brother & I supported him.
The lesson I learned then was reinforced later when I lay on the gurney in the recovery room after heart surgery 3 1/2 years ago. It was quiet. I barely had the strength to think. I realized that I was still in real danger of losing my biological life. In the humility of my broken physical state, I questioned the purity of my motivation through life. My regrets were no longer about what I did or did not do but why I did it. Was I driven through hated or motivated by love: or at least, peaceful acceptance?
In the contest to measure up to my brother J, I lost. But in the challenge to accept myself, I won. I eventually learned to measure success by a different standard. I can best explain it this way: Have you ever ended a job or friendship with the phrase, “No hard feelings.” That’s such a vague phrase–“hard feelings” can mean anything from hatred to something not quite as bitter as hatred to sadness to self-loathing. When I lay on that gurney in the recovery room in that one peaceful, lucid moment between two surgeries, I saw first hand the importance of letting go of all such negative sentiments. I know that God granted me a reprieve but not complete absolution. One day, I will be on the precipice of life & death & will slip over the edge. My hope is that when that day comes & it truly is my day to go, I will be able to let go with “No hard feelings.” And I will be sure to be proud of all the accomplishments my brother J, my other siblings, & all the people dear to me experienced whether I did the same in my life or not. I realize that life wasn’t an external competition among peers but an internal challenge to find peace. And few things bring me peace than the recognition that the blessings of my loved ones are my blessings too.