A few years back at the dinner table, my sister Sarah announced the intense competitiveness she had felt with my accomplishments in high school.
My parents registered this as a piece of non-news, barely acknowledging it. Sarah was, after all, a middle child, and could have set the mold for all middle child stereotypes. She was frequently full of pronouncements of feeling squeezed by her siblings on both sides of the birth order.
Her middle child neuroses were only stoked by her fear, and awareness, of being the odd one out. It didn’t help that we called her “the milkman's daughter." Sarah’s light-blue eyes, whose almond angles round out to large O's when excited, mimic the shape of her round face trimmed by blonde curls. Next to her dark-haired, green-eyed, clearly Mediterranean clan, she showcased the features of some long-lost great grandfather from Sweden. Or the milkman.
Although my parents didn’t even cock an eyebrow at her most recent story of woe, I was enthralled. I’m enough of a narcissist to be interested in stories that involve me. Especially stories where I come out on top – the place where I belong.
As for high school, it wasn’t unsurprising that I had left a legacy that cast dark shadows over all those who followed. I was (am still) a classic overachiever. My GPA had been a 4.1 on a 4.0 scale, itself an intimidating, if confusing, feat. After a two-term reign as president of our theater group, I had walked off the stage towards a healthy scholarship at a far-away private east coast college. Yes, I reminisced, I had been quite thrilling. She had every reason to be intimidated.
And now my sister is a doctor. Well, not quite a doctor, not quite yet. But if her successes in medical school are any measure, she will be one soon. Too soon for me. I'm not quite ready to take on my next role, the one of village idiot. Yes, I graduated college. From a reasonably good school. But she will be a doctor, and therefore she will have won.
So I wanted to know if she thought she had won as well.
"I used to feel like I was in direct competition with you," she told me one recent Saturday afternoon. “But I don’t anymore.”
Now, not only am I not a doctor, not winning, but she has moved on from the shadow of my success. My ego takes the hit.
"You had set the bar very high," Sarah continued, “I just wanted to live up to Mom and Dad's expectations. I knew I would have to do just as well or better."
And Sarah had done well in high school. Very well. Her grades were high, she took challenging classes – even getting the highest score on the Biology AP exam.
But there was a time when Sarah wasn't going to be a doctor. She was going to be a wedding planner. She had toured schools around the country, looking at hospitality programs. I had personally rooted for her to go to Bennington College, whose scenic backdrop of Vermont and victorian houses would serve as her campus.
Instead, she had gone to University of South Carolina, Columbia. Columbia is not scenic. It is, instead, economically depressed. And depressing in just about every other way as well.
This is the point when I thought I had won. It was clearly too soon to call it.
Within her first year, she had changed her focus, thinking back to her high school science success. She declared a Biology major, a Medical Humanities minor. She was going Pre-Med.
So why the switch?
"Guilt," she tells me. "Early senior year of high school, the real world starts to come in and greet you. I felt guilty about doing something frivolous with my life."
Here is where I should tell you what I do with my life. I make ads. I make ads in New York City with other people who make ads and all of us take it very, very seriously. So seriously that, in the heat of a particularly ferocious ad battle, you’re prone to hearing a favorite colloquialism: “We’re just making ads here. It’s not like we’re saving lives.”
Sarah will be saving lives. As a neurologist, most likely – a specialization chosen just to rub salt in my wound (I think).
So Sarah is the Winner, if I use her words as my judgement. With my head start in age and all my prospects for great success, here I am, at 27, being completely outdone by my 24-year-old younger sibling.
But being the Winner is not the same thing as having won. Or it’s not the same thing as feeling like you have won. To me, Sarah has won. To Sarah, my sister, it’s as if every accomplishment has only a breath of air, quickly gulped, while drowning.
“I need to prove to myself that I belong here and it wasn’t a mistake [by the medical school] to let me in,” revels my sister. “I’m not as smart at 95% of my class, but I work harder than 95% of my class.”
Sarah did not get admitted to medical school on her first try. This rejection, though common, has deeply burrowed into my sister’s psyche. Even though she is currently, as always, in the top of her class. None of it is enough. None of it ever proves enough.
She admits to still calling our parents after every test.
“I feel best when I impress someone, or please someone,” she says. “Mom and Dad have said, ‘We’re not surprised when you call us and tell us you got an A, because you’ve always gotten As and you always do well.’”
I ask my sister when she thinks she’ll be able to consider all this a success. There’s silence. She thinks.
She then says, quietly, “I know I will have made it if I am making enough money to cover my student loans, and have my dog, and not be alone.”
Sarah is the Winner. But Sarah is not just my competitor. Sarah is my sister. For this, my heart aches. And, at the risk of more narcissism, I am afraid I am part of the reason that she is alone.
I ask her when she would not be alone.
“When I have a significant other, or a best friend,” she says. It is a simple, small thing. But it is something she does not have.
She then changes her tone. “But I feel superior to [my classmates] who have significant others or friends. I am a stronger person for being able to do it by myself.”
This defiance is a part of my sister that I know well. It’s a family trait. We bypass current feeling for future fulfillment. I don’t know how much being alone bothers her. And at this point, it will be impossible to know. She has blocked the way back to that path and has us on a new one that only moves forward.
And, in any case, she’s not comparing herself with others as much anymore. “I am much less competitive with other people and more competitive with myself since entering medical school,” she says. “I [feel] more like my own person with my own goals and [am] less concerned about others and how I stack up next to them.”
I was right when I said that Sarah is the Winner. But now I know why she has won.