It 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. And it was mine. My brother, a year older, couldn’t believe I was so lucky—I mean, Ken Griffey, Jr.—so he proceeded to, quite 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 river-like creases running over Ken’s regal face. My Ken Griffey card. But wasn’t it just a bit of paper with some stats on the back? Yes, it was, but that’s 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, mess-making, and flower-picking. MLB cards were the last thing on my mind. My brother, conversely, flourished in sports and schoolyard intimidation, setting the highest standard of elementary-age virility the world has ever seen. I think God must’ve thought it a good joke sticking two wildcards like us in one household, separated by a mere three feet of bedroom space and sixteen months of age. For me, then, that Ken Griffey card was no more than a rare, shining opportunity to wield the sort of power my brother so 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. “I’m better at basketball.” “I’m better at baking.” “I’m better at rollerblading.” “I’m better at monkey bars.” His tally board, I feel certain, 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 unwavering 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 self-conscious heads, still, it existed. In Mockingbird’s guide to Genesis, Eden and Afterward, Will McDavid explains the first rivalry in the Bible, 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.
It’s natural, then, to seek righteousness by trumping the one who so easily points out your unrighteousness. For me, it only takes a moment to conjure up memories of this exact desire (yesterday). One of the easiest ways to silence my own inadequacy seems to be through challenging my brother’s adequacy. Growing up next to him, I took every opportunity to grab him by the heel and launch myself forward. If he played sports, dammit, so did I. And if he was smart, I had to be smarter. If he got into a good college, I had to get into a “better” one. It’s fascinating to look deeper into the place from where this suffocating, red-hot desire erupts (Why am I such a prick?).
My first semester of college was also my first time reading Genesis. I was startled by how well God knew my story. I was there, reflected in the fallen characters, men and women scrambling to justify themselves in a dark, dark world. Cain versus Abel. Isaac versus Ishmael. Jacob versus Esau. Particularly interesting is the Leah vs. 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, I see myself hiding in academics and work, always trying to outdo my brother by projecting a “better” self. And the world rewards me. I earn medals, awards, and applause, as does my brother. But 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 outdid everyone: the One who conquered the world, not by flashing science fair medals or a big fat salary, but with rusty nails in his hands and blood on his chest. And by his gracious death and sweet, sweet resurrection, we are free to be ourselves. We don’t have to worry about how we measure-up to our brothers, because we rest, knowing that God understands our rivalrous hearts and that he works through them, guiding us further and deeper into his providence.