One of my favourite descriptions of brothers comes from a book called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. (This book is a memoir, written in the style of an encyclopedia. I admire the author for this inventiveness). Here's her entry:
My brother, who grew up with three sisters, was I won't say how many years old when he finally realized that he did not have to wrap the towel around his chest when he came out of the shower.
Okay, so that's just a funny side-note. Lucky and unlucky (you be the judge) have I been to be able to observe my brothers during childhood and to now observe the brotherly relationship of my sons. My own brothers toughened me up by torturing and tormenting me with their wild behaviour. Having learned that cats will always land on their feet, my brothers tested the hypothesis repeatedly by taking cats of varying ages and stages (and since I grew up on a farm, we had a regular turn-around of cats, due to causes both natural and mysterious) into the hay mow (that's an Ontario word; for readers from other backgrounds, this means "loft") and throwing them down to the floor two stories below.2 In these kinds of endeavors, the boys seemed to understand one another perfectly. They had camaraderie. The rest of the space in my childhood memory is taken up by their alternating fight and flight responses to one another.
Of my own sons, I see some similar behaviour, but with the movement of time and the adaptation to the urban environment, their relationship with one another is, shall I say, less untamed. Some days when they wake up, they sit together and cuddle each other in front of the fireplace. Other days, their eyes are not even opened yet when the tattling begins. They can invent things, draw, and design obstacle courses together amicably, stirring up a sense of beauty and pride in their mother's heart. But when they take on more competitive play, the tone changes. In my teaching of the PSYC 106 discussion group this summer, we have been looking at the interactions between nature and nurture. I think brotherly relationships are ripe for the study of this topic. After all, the very first brotherly relationship known ended in competition to the point of murder. Joseph's brothers hated him so much that they threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Do brothers naturally compete? Is their tendency toward aggression in the face of conflict part of the nature of their gender? Does rough-and-tumble always trump the "feel-good movie" ending? Or is this behaviour due to the cultural and social environment?
Here are two examples from other cultures.
I have enjoyed watching brother relationships among our Karen friends. In my observations, I have been fascinated by the way the boys seem to laugh and joke with each other, even in an embarrassing situation. For instance, if during a soccer game, one boy misses a kick, rather than hearing taunting and an aggressive retort, I hear cheerful laughter, received with wide smiles. We have now enjoyed several spontaneous soccer games with the Karen boys. Invariably, several kids appear with or without shoes, usually without socks, sometimes wearing rollerblades. During the most recent game, my husband noticed that a lot of the kids were wearing only one shoe. Amongst themselves, they had figured out a system to make sure that everyone had at least one shoe for kicking. It didn't matter to them what belonged to who, or who was wearing the best shoe. This absence of personal ownership is refreshing and makes me realize how much our Western relationships are influenced by materialism. Undoubtedly, my sons' conflicts are in part stimulated by the perceived need to protect their "things."
A story from God's Littlest Angels, the orphanage in Haiti through which we are adopting our newest boy, further illustrates how perhaps the actual "nature" of brotherliness is not aggression but protection. Here is a portion of little Djemy's story, as written by Joyce Trainer, a volunteer English teacher at God's Littlest Angels:
We had a new arrival to the baby nursery this month. A little 2 ½ year old (an estimate on size and maturity, though cognitively he is on par with a 4 ½ year old) boy named Djemy and his little 1 yr old brother came for some loving and nutrition. They were both severaly malnourished and withdrawn. Djemy though was physically much more stunted than his little brother and it was soon evident why. He was his baby brother's protector. When both would receive food, Djemy would give half to his brother. If brother was crying Djemy would hold him. If brother was sleeping Djemy was watching. Djemy was always there for him. You could not take the two apart, if they could not make eye contact at the very least both would cry uncontrollably. However as Djemy continued to focus solely on his brother's well being and adjustment to the orphange he started to slip away from us...
Besides making my heart ache for this little boy who has suffered so much, this story tells me how, when faced with destitution and loss, one brother will sacrifice everything for another. In other words, when there is nothing left but each other, what comes out is not competition but generosity. It seems wrong for such a sad story to create such a beautiful message, but then, that's how God redeems all things.
1I apologize for the excessive use of asides in this blog post.
2While I do not endorse this behaviour, I am happy to report that all the cats did, indeed, land on their feet and lived to pass on their genes to the next generation.