Read an Excerpt
Define Your Relationship
Our work is to stay present, available to the universe and vulnerable to the truth. When we are wholeheartedly present, exploring the conditioned mind, who we really are sees who we really aren’t.
— Stephen Levine, Embracing the Beloved: Relationship As a Path of Awakening
Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.
— Rumi, quoted in The Essential Rumi
The first step in the eight-step process is to define your relationship. Until you know what you’re working with and how you actually view your sibling connection, there’s no point in attempting change. Besides, it is difficult to transform a relationship that is ill-defined, amorphous, or unexamined. So this is the point where you settle in to have a good look and see how you represent this all-important relationship to yourself and to others. Defining your relationship will thus entail identifying differences and traits you have in common, as well as the roles you play in one another’s lives, and how all that has shifted through time.
“I would say that my sister and I are getting to know each other all over again,” Jeremy, one of our workshop participants, explained. A 38-year-old Silicon Valley computer expert, he went on to describe what he saw developing in their relationship:
Jenny is the wild one in the family. She’s into photography and sports, has run eight marathons, and loves to kayak on the rapids. If you searched the far corners of the earth, you couldn’t find two people more opposite than we are. With my business ventures foremost in my mind, it’s rare I even venture out unless I have my cell phone or Palm Pilot with me. For years Jenny and I took our differences for granted and never bothered to get to know one another. But when she developed breast cancer last year it shocked the living daylights out of me. I realized my amazing athletic sister might not live forever and I could conceivably lose her. Suddenly getting to know her became paramount in my mind. What I’ve been discovering as I do these exercises is that we do share characteristics in common. We both have tremendous passion and love for life and a great sense of humor. We both want big families. And we both think sibling relationships are important to nurture. It’s been a blessing to get to know her....
If someone asked you to describe your relationship with your brother or sister, what would you say? Notice the first things that come to your mind. Would you say close, distant, estranged, or best friends? Then consider how you would define its chief characteristics. What role do you play in each other’s lives? Is it the same or has it changed through the varying storms and seasons of life? Every journey begins where we are, and that is the starting point for our exploration. First we take a look and notice what’s present in our experience. As we share our recollections, discernible patterns begin to emerge, which provide a foundation for expanding our awareness. Awareness is the keynote in our journey; you might even call it a bridge to cross from the past to the future. So our first efforts have to do with broadening awareness. As we unearth our memories, take a few moments to ponder the nature of your sibling connection.
We All Grew Up in Different Families
The magical, almost surreal quality of early childhood images and experiences shape us at the core. Examples abound in every popular medium. In the screen adaptation of Neil Simon’s play Brighton Beach Memoirs, two brothers grow up in a poor Jewish home in Brooklyn during the 1930s. Stanley, the older brother, works hard but can’t scrape together enough money to support his ailing father, as is expected of him. If we were to ask Stanley about his sibling relationship, he might say, “Oh, he’s my kid brother. My job is to teach him about the world and make sure he gets to college. I’m like his second father.” If we were to ask Eugene about his relationship, he might say, “My brother is the light of my world. He brings order and logic with him. He makes everything bearable. He teaches me about right and wrong and how to take care of myself. I couldn’t live without him.”
In the movie, Eugene gets to test that hypothesis when Stanley runs away from home. Having gambled his weekly salary of seventeen dollars (trying to make extra money to bring home), Stanley is so ashamed that he takes off that night, vowing to join the army. Eugene tries to persuade him to stay home, but Stanley is resolute. Reflecting on his brother’s departure, in effect Eugene sees his own childhood ended, and the prospect of growing up alone a difficult venture.
Obviously, Stanley would have a different experience to relate about Eugene. Hearing them both describe their history, you might think they grew up in two separate families. That, in fact, is true.
In this chapter we initiate the journey by exploring two related points of departure. First is the realization that although we may have grown up in the same house with the same parents, most siblings actually grew up in different families. Any memories we hold in common are random and unrelated and invariably spring up as the result of telling and retelling stories from our past rather than jointly remembering in common. In later chapters we discuss the formation of family legends, which arise out of this process of retelling family stories. The second focus of this chapter enters your home turf. There we begin the process of mapping and describing your present sibling relationships through a series of exploratory exercises. This mapping involves reporting where you are today without judgment, inference, or added meaning. Good luck on the journey.
In our family, Joel, the youngest, lived in a world dominated by two older sisters. There was never a time when he was without them ... no memory or experience that did not include adjusting to or accommodating their presence in his life. The same holds true for Marjory with regard to Jo Ann. There is no is without the big sister in the picture. Apart from these sibling constellations, different groupings occurred in the family. Joel and his father formed a masculine unit within the larger family unit. Marjory and Jo Ann stuck with Mom.
From the Trade Paperback edition.