Growing Up With A Difficult Sister: Reflections of a Brother

There is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain — Alan Watts.

I titled this piece, Growing Up With A Difficult Sister but I wonder if it should be the other way around. “You’re too sensitive!” “Stop being sensitive!” “Why can’t you take a joke…?” I remember those cries like it was yesterday. Whenever my sister got upset at me, whether it was for stealing her snacks or making fun of her, I would always deflect her issue by pointing out how sensitive she was. It was her issue. It wasn’t my fault she couldn’t take a joke. I would follow that up, pretending to comfort her, by patting her head several times and hoping such patronizing would defuse the situation. It did not. I remember once that the girl I crowned “the queen of sore losers” upended a whole monopoly board and stole all my cash because she lost the game. She really was the queen.

A sensitive sister is not a big problem — if you have friends and other relationships and space to grow apart and protect yourself from one another’s furies. After all, there is a reason why the proverb, “Familiarity breeds contempt” exists. But between the moving spaces of four countries, ironically our family spaces became narrowed. The four walls of mom, dad, my sister and I became a garden of joy and a suffocating prison of despair. Our fragmented childhood meant our relationship as siblings became the key to our survival. So there was no escape. In this room of one’s own, one could either dig at the walls, hoping for jailbreak or annihilate your cell mate.

I think I understand now her sensitivity a little better. The sensitive person is a paradox. Sensitivity is the level of your consciousness, both of pleasure and pain, of evil and good, of beauty and ugliness, of truth and of lies. The more conscious you are, the more sensitive you become. But its cost is immense — a traffic jam can ruin your day; a break up, your life. But we need sensitive people because without them we are blind to different layers of reality.

My sister was sensitive because she cared. She cared about her relationships, especially ours. Her emotions reflected the intensity both of her inner self and how she understood herself in her relationships. Her responses raised a good question — in the cruelty of relationships, we aren’t we more depressed? When betrayal and tragedy all occur within families and friends why aren’t children more anxious? I still vividly remember nights of shouting and broken glass. That’s probably why we fought so much. She always opened herself up to me but I was a walking jack hammer.

Of course, being sensitive doesn’t excuse you from personal agency or responsibility. Nor does it mean you always understand why you’re so sensitive. What exactly is it that you’re feeling? You still have to choose what you do with your life and how you respond to these emotions. My sister was no exception. But the temptations are harder and the possibilities of evil greater. We can do more damage with our pain. It is crimes committed out of hatred and passion that devastate the most. Even the most apathetic criminal has inwardly become one who hates life itself. Why did Cain kill Abel? Isn’t it because his deeds were evil and Abel’s were good? Isn’t it because Abel was loved by his Father and he wasn’t? It’s easy to think that being sensitive makes us better humans. But it doesn’t always. It’s about what we choose to do with what we become conscious of.

So in saying that, I think my sister really was growing up with a difficult brother. My solution to everything was to suppress emotions — both mine and hers. All I had to do was highlight her wrong emotions, her overreactions and her sensitivity, as though it was a problem in itself. It’s no wonder my sister would say I had the emotional maturity of a ten year old. As Hermione Granger used to say to Ron Weasley, “Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” It’s ironic that one of my nicknames in elementary school was Ron Weasley. Looking back now, I think what I wish was that I had listened to my sister better. As the more “resilient” one I wish that I had strengthened her. And I wish I had come to know the greater joy of understanding her. Because in knowing her, I also came to know myself.

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