Sunday, 14 March 2010

Firstborn here...

It must be thirty years now that 'birth order' became a pre-occupation, and one which many authors found lucrative. (Note that some of the ideas I had and express below, some of which I have on file from an article I wrote in 1985, must occur to many people - I've seen similar ideas elsewhere, so accuse me of being a frustrated sibling if you wish, but not of plagiarism.) I frankly doubt that there's all that much to the concept. Today, when a 'huge family' is three children, I suppose much weight can be given to such studies, but I well recall when many families I knew had six or more children - and I imagine that an enormous percentage of the population were 'middle children,' who for some reason are supposed to have all sorts of problems that Augustine would have chalked up to original sin. In fact, based entirely on many people I have known, not on 'studies,' I genuinely believe that what strengths, weaknesses, talents, whatever, any one of us have has no correlation to birth order at all (and I'd have known that even if the only large families I'd known had been those of my own parents.)

I wrote recently about my qualms about the 'designer children' wish - and I equally loathe the goal of 'designer siblings.' The idea that there is some magic formula (one common idea I've heard from many people is that a pregnancy within a very short time of the first-born child's arrival ensures the next child and the first will be inseparable, for example) which will bring about sibling relationships which are so close and loving that they can barely be surpassed by the persons of the Trinity is balderdash. I would recommend that anyone - whatever their age or family size - take a serious look at their own relationships (and those of their friends) with siblings, and not to restrict this look to when you all were adults and probably had only periodic contact. I'd bet my last penny (if I still had one) that most of us would admit that we've had moments of wanting to stuff one another up a chimney. (Don't tell the yuppies, who have no concept of memory, only of self-help and the like. I can think of one I knew who nearly tried to drown her sister in a fit of rage when they were adolescents, yet who is weeping and wailing because a school counsellor saw her three-year-old as having 'rivalry' with his younger sister.)

There are exceptions, of course, but I wasn't at all surprised when someone I knew, who was doing a psychology study, found (to her) unexpected results for a fairly extensive survey. She had done a detailed poll of young adults, exploring their interests, values and so forth, and the relation this had to the responses of their siblings and closest friends. She was amazed (though I was not, when she told me) that close friends were far more similar (and congenial, in most cases) than were the majority of siblings, and indeed that 'best friends' had more in common than identical twins.

I think many of us, even if we get along with siblings well enough, would admit that we may share nothing much beyond mitochondrial DNA. In fact, were we to ponder the situation, it's likely we'd find that the only reason we had any extended relationship with them was that we shared the same parents. Had we known the same person - perhaps as a schoolmate, or co-worker, or acquaintance - without having parents in common, it's unlikely we would have chosen them as friends. (There's the added problem, of course, that all siblings had ugly competition - that trouble simmered because we were under the same roof - that every last one of us feels the others had something we didn't - that we've all had moments of being proud of the others but years of jealousy.)

Mellow after my Sunday wine and beef (all the more precious during the Lenten season), I'm just having a bit of fun today. What follows is very far from exegesis - read Tom Wright or Raymond Brown for that. :) Yes, I'm aware of the meanings of the parables (I already did read the greats), but I'm too weary to go into Israel, eschatology, or wisdom literature. I'm just going to admit that, whether there's anything to 'birth order' or not, we first-born children do tend to come off rather badly in the scriptures.

Here are a few for whom I feel sorry - almost as much as I do for myself:

  • Every last first-born in Exodus, especially those who didn't know how to outsmart the angel of death.
  • Esau, who was constantly being ripped off by his conniving, double-dealing, sneaky brother, who, when Esau was in great need, would deny him even a little lentil soup. And papa always took that little con merchant's side, too!
  • Leah, who was a pawn in a dirty trick, who knew Jacob (yes, the same little crumb who had such wonderful family attitudes in the previous example) would not have married her had he not thought she was her sister, and who married a man so lustful and self-centred that he wasn't even aware of whom he was bonking.
  • Yes, I even feel for Cain! I assuredly do not condone fratricide, but Cain had inherited weakness and a tendency to be drastically impulsive from both sides of the family. After all, his gift had been rejected - and brother Abel must have been disgustingly smug!
  • Super first-born Adam - who had only one shot, winner take all, and then had, over a lifespan of 99 years, to hear his wife nagging him for having listened to her and blaming him for everyone's labour pains.
Naturally, I once felt the greatest sympathy for the Prodigal Son's elder brother. Perhaps it is because the easiest ways to find horrid blemishes are to look into a mirror, but it's only recently that I find Elder Son to be insufferable. (Maybe it's ageing, as well. We very devout sorts, by the 'high middle ages' of one's life, have had various occasions when we've had the shame and joy of the Prodigal Son, and have felt the wonderful divine embrace of forgiveness and re-integration. And I affirm that strongly, even though some of the devout, mostly who came to strong belief in later years, have been the Prodigal in some detail, but we who never were inclined to riotous living have had equally grave falls which tended to be far more subtly malicious and much less fun.) Dare I concede that, for all that both of the sons showed an extreme lack of filial piety, I could tolerate the younger one far better? (Actually, except that he'd have to take certain things to the harlots, the Prodigal sounds very much like the few men whom I have loved... but that's another subject for another thread.)

Presumably both brothers were young, though the weariness of the elder son (with which I greatly sympathise) shows he must have been a highly responsible and obedient sort for his age. Given the opportunity and cash, many a young man would have fallen into riotous living and squandering money on harlots - Francesco Bernadone was not known for tight purse-strings. Many of the young really give no thought to tomorrow - he probably didn't notice the inheritance had been depleted until he received the eviction notice for his penthouse.

I'm assuming my readers are devout sorts - mostly because I can't imagine anyone sitting through a one of my posts otherwise. We can understand the Elder Son's weariness. We've seen utter bastards win every prize where we not only receive no credit but can be rejected (or sacked even when we worked for free.) We're sick of hearing tales of 'God's will' giving people opportunities, and wondering why he wasn't more generous with us. We've been self sacrificing and ripped off by those who know a soft touch when they see one. Need I say more? (Well, all right... I need to say one thing more, since blushing won't be fatal. The fact is that we can sermonise till the Judgement Day about God as Source of All Good, but, deep down, we feel he owes us a great deal. And, since we correctly see ourselves as sons and daughters of the Almighty Father, we have an entire cosmos of brothers and sisters, whom we hope will applaud our good example... and who don't.. and whom we'd frequently like to stuff up the chimney...)

I heard an interesting sermon on the Prodigal and Bro this morning, and one point was especially spot on. Elder Brother was totally dutiful, weighing what he'd done and what he hadn't got (the kid to celebrate with his friends), but had no love left in his actions - he is filled with contempt, envy, and rage. The homilist didn't say this, of course, but the Elder Son is a self-righteous bastard.

Churchy type, or even lifelong church professional, are you now? Then you'll agree with me that we've met the Elder Brother - and he is us. My act of humility for today is allowing myself dreadful grammar. It's only a fraction of that which I just may feel if I meditate for a little while on the Father's saying 'everything I have is yours.' (If you are so devout that you read this far, try that meditation in the next few weeks... it's highly penitential, but probably will lead those of you who are Catholics of any variety and make sacramental confession to have a painful, wonderful dose of self-knowledge, and very probably absolution that will have a joy beyond killing the fatted calf.)

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