When we’re with our families, we can’t pretend to be someone we’re not. They know our quirks and tastes, talents and difficulties. They tend to know us even better than we know ourselves, in fact. And we know them in return: lovable, struggling, eccentric, surprising.
Our knowledge of each other usually leads to love, and this isn’t due only to the nice parts. In our family life, we learn to love our brothers and sisters precisely as they are, foibles and all. We also learn that we can’t just will people to be who we want them to be.
Change is not impossible, of course, and another part of love is to desire that our family members become all that we see they can become. Sibling rivalry, at its best, operates in this realm. A competition where one person is clearly in the lead is not fun for very long, even for the winner. The best rivalries spring up, rather, when both siblings can see that the other actually might win. That is, we can really be rivals only when we see that our siblings are not yet the best they can be.
In any good rivalry, then, both parties end up encouraging the other to greatness. Sibling rivalries tend to be particularly intense precisely because we know each other so well. We know precisely which weak points to prod and which idiosyncrasies to exploit. While this can be painful at times, ideally this intensity carries through to a final greatness that is not generic but truly fulfills our personhood.
Sadly, in our fallen state, it’s all too easy to twist rivalries away from greatness. All love is dangerous; the love within a family is intensely so. We know precisely which weak points to prod, but we don’t always know when to stop, and so we can cause great hurt to our siblings.
It’s good, therefore, that we have a certain caution about sibling rivalries. But we shouldn’t reject them altogether. Take today’s saint, Andrew, as an example. Saint John reports that Andrew met Jesus first, later bringing his brother Peter to meet the Messiah. John even gives the precise hour of the meeting between Jesus and Andrew, a detail that must have come from Andrew himself. Admittedly, we’re not let into Andrew’s mind, so we’re just guessing about his motivations. But he must have given John all this information for a reason—the other three Gospels very efficiently introduce Peter and Andrew together—and those of us who have siblings know what’s going on here. Peter and Andrew were both looking for the Messiah, and Andrew got there first, and that’s really important.
This is how Jesus works in our lives: He takes what is good and makes it better and higher. For Peter and Andrew, the Lord took their rivalry in seeking Himself and gave them the strength to play it out all the way. Still a brother at the bitter end, Andrew asked to die on a diagonal cross, since he couldn’t just copy Peter’s inverted crucifixion.
Image: Frans Francken the Younger, The Crucifixion of St. Andrew.