Older Brother Syndrome
Like many in my spiritual line, I suffer from older brother syndrome.
This condition—more of a complex, really—affects children anywhere and everywhere in a family’s birth order. Older brother syndrome originates somewhere deeper than DNA. You find it wherever a veneer of goodness masks a judgmental spirit, where selflessness is bent so far out of shape that it becomes selfishness.
My older brother syndrome mostly manifests itself in the imperceptible and socially acceptable. In traffic jams and grocery stores, I silently thank God I am not like other people—offensive drivers and line jumpers, the impatient and oblivious. Those who drag two weeks’ worth of groceries to the self-checkout.
I recoil in the presence of people who carry themselves as if they’re cooler, smarter, better than everyone else in the room. They violate my sense of mutuality, my well-rehearsed creeds of connectedness. None of us is better than another, I want to shout into the middle of the party. But the subtext in my soul gets the last word: Clearly, we’re all a little better than you.
The closer I inch toward the church, the more complicated my state becomes. God hands blessings out to his people and I can’t trace the line or logic. Those who seem to operate without a plan stumble into a lucrative job or get their wives pregnant. Toiling through barren days, I lift my complaint heavenward: “Look! These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me even a sliver of what I deserve.”
When older brother syndrome seizes me, the image of God I bear—and recognize in others—grows more and more distorted. My prayers rely on negative space.
Stay right there, I ask of those who exasperate me. Don’t move a muscle. As long as someone clings to a theology I judge untenable or fails to ask whether they are or aren’t their brother’s keeper, I enjoy the taste of pride on my tongue and between my teeth. The “other” provides contrast; they make me appear holier; they give me something to define myself against, sparing me the harder work of finding something to favor.
Thank God I know both the condition and the remedy. To shake off the symptoms of older brother syndrome and to claw at the cause. I hold two pictures before me—one found in a mirror, the other in a memory.
Splashing water on my face, running fingers across the length of my beard, I find the younger brother I still resemble if I look hard and close enough. History and the testimony of many witnesses confirm how long I’ve walked the line, as far as lines are concerned. But even early adopters and the early adopted struggle with their old cravings. If they could find a way, they would trade their resumes and spiritual riches for a roll through the mud and three square, sloppy meals.
Standing on slumped shoulders and calling myself a giant only works for so long. Gravity does its thing and I tumble back, my head hitting the earth. A jogged memory reminds me that I am reckless, flippant, and without mercy. Somewhere another older brother looks down on me, and is both right and wrong.
I soften up as I recall slipping a younger brother’s shoes on and off. But this reckoning only takes me so far. I need to see my father. I look down every road I’ve ever taken, and find him running toward me.
More interested in closing the distance than appearing dignified, he hikes his cloak around his knees. The tears streaking his face soak his beard. His embrace restores my name; his kisses are my inheritance.
The joy of my salvation lies not in my ability to keep the rules, dictated or invented, but in his eternal readiness to receive me. A thousand times he gathers me home, then sets to do it again. He stretches muscles that never tire and crouches in the starting block. Always ready to run, always ready for revelry—this is the shape new mercies take.
“You thought God was an architect, now you know,” Jason Isbell sings and, without intending to, he reveals everything about my spiritual family. His “24 Frames” tells of prodigals and proud papas.
“He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow,” Isbell continues, killing me with his kind Alabama drawl. “And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames. In 24 frames.”
When my older brother syndrome flares up, I treat God like an architect. His cathedral design, all imported stone and stained glass, establishes a place for me to flit in and out of, approaching the altar with sacrifices and poised prayers. But Isbell is right: God is more like a pipe bomb, detonating in the middle of my deeds, revealing just how flammable they are.
With smoke in my eyes and sickness in my lungs, I make out a figure on the run once again. A good father reaches into the ruins of my life—as he does for all brothers and sisters, old or young—and calls me his. What started as an explosion becomes an eruption of joy, the prelude to a party, the firstfruits of a family reunion.
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