Middle Child Syndrome
I am, to borrow a phrase from songwriter Andrew Osenga, “the first-born son of a first-born son.” So why do I feel like a middle child?
The tentacles of my thirties wrap around me. The tightness leaves just enough range of motion to turn my neck and glimpse how other people live. For once, the middle ground I always claim seems more like a burden than a birthright.
This plot of land sits in the middle of what life is and what I thought it would be, in the middle of my thirties, in middle age, really—who actually lives to be 100?
When I drop the needle on Strand of Oaks’ “Shut In,” I hear a tune I sang under my breath before I knew the words. Over booming drums and open beds of sound, singer Tim Showalter dives deeper than most, coming to the surface and breathing out words that ring true:
I was born in the middle
Maybe too late
Everything good had been made
I cling to romantic notions of living out my days like Wendell Berry. I picture outlasting the times and tides by rooting down. Knowing and being known, sifting familiar soil through my fingers, watching the same trees stretch and mature, eating the same breakfast at the same diner counter.
If everyone tingles at the thought of going, of chasing the next big thing, let me delight in staying, satisfied by the simple things. Like a tree planted by the water, I will not be moved.
I failed to account for one thing: Being Wendell Berry comes much easier when you’re born Wendell Berry.
Staying, rooting, investing, often feels so foolish—especially when the people around you seem to have moved on and wised up.
Transience comes with the territory when you live in a college town. Blurry figures move around and beyond you. I always wish for a few to stay, but understand why most leave. The needle prick comes when the leavers talk as if leaving is a given, expressing relief to go somewhere bigger, hipper, better. But I’m still here.
Soon I’ll mark nine years at a newspaper still weathering the shocks of a sale and several rounds of layoffs. Friends who saw the writing on the wall, or their names scribbled across a pink slip, now find life easier, lighter, happier. Some readers whisper, others shout, that we’re not what we used to be. Saddled with survivor’s guilt and spying Sisyphus’ rock in the distance, I’m still here.
Friends migrate away from our center-city neighborhood. They seek bigger, newer houses, cleaner streets, better schools. I look out my front window at a place of promise and need, at neighbors who are better in real life than in perception or on paper. I’m still here? This time, the voice in my head punctuates those words with a question mark, not a period.
I remember the days before our little family grew, when fertility was a broken promise. Finding myself caught in the middle as men slapped each other’s backs and winked across the room as a sign of manhood fulfilled. When my wife or I felt stranded between people exclaiming, “Wow, everyone in [insert name of church, social club or friend group] is getting pregnant.” Not everyone. We’re standing right here.
Almost everyone feels their “I’m still here” rattle around inside. It comes through a town, a marriage, a cause, a church. My “I’m still heres” pile up while I sit in the middle, wondering where I went wrong.
My questions and fingers aren’t pointed at anyone else. You see the reason and the reasons behind all the motion. It just seems everyone received the same adulthood manual except you. That the light you left on only shines for you.
Stick around in the middle long enough, you begin to believe you were born there. Not only has everything good been made—it went up for grabs. You missed it. Too slow to move, too cautious to risk, too late for the blessing.
Early church creeds and confessions need no touch-ups from me. Still, in my hump days, stuck days and somedays, the Apostles’ Creed lodges in my throat. I long for a creed that suits this apostle, something that starts like:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of times and seasons, of it’s-just-a-phases and all the spaces between.
I long to believe God works independent of time, through time and just in time. I need the God of the Psalms, who gives in due season. I whisper worship to the God of Ecclesiastes, who makes time for everything. I pray to a God who made pilgrims out of those who stayed and those who went.
This God sees each season before it arrives, finding purpose in them all. He makes the seasons change, and makes change within each season.
On the days I feel caught in a foothold, my body wedged between rocks and hard places, he doesn’t leave me to twist and turn in futility. He slows me down long enough to experience gratitude for a moment in the presence of any friend, even one on the go; humbles me as I tell a story I might have missed out on; lends me new mercies for another morning among my neighbors. And he gives himself. When we groan from the middle, he hears. Lonely, not alone.
We all were born in the middle. Between heaven and earth, between what remains and what will pass away, between redemption and recreation. But never too late to know him or watch every good thing be remade.
I have yet to stumble across the secret to staying, to sticking around. But God’s promises change how I see myself, how I live in space and time. Not from Wendell Berry’s spiritual line. Not a middle child. Not the first-born son of a first-born son. Rather, the firstfruits of an only begotten son who sees the beginning, the end and everything and everybody in the middle.