On heirs and spares…

In his newly-released book, Spare, Harry, Duke of Sussex, has made public much of his grief and disappointment in his relationships with his family. He shares his struggles from the tragic and very public loss of his mother following his parents’ high-profile separation and divorce, to his perception of having been bred solely as a “spare” whose existence was only necessary should anything happen to his older brother, William, the heir. Harry seems to believe that he could have been required to spare anything for his older brother.

Harry casts himself in a tragic role, no doubt leaving many wondering how different his life might have been had he been provided professional help to work through his grief and disappointment much sooner.

Harry’s story is not the only one of its kind. Sibling conflict and family drama have been with us since, well, the beginning…

The first pair of siblings to whom we are introduced in scripture, Cain and Abel, seem to be complementary types. Cain raises produce from the ground, and Abel tends flocks. They might have represented the hope of cooperation and collaboration. For reasons that are not given to us in Genesis 4, the siblings choose to make an offering to their Creator, each from the fruit of his labors. But God apparently “had no regard” for Cain and his offering of produce, while having regard for Abel and his offering of the firstlings of his flock. In his anger, Cain kills Abel. God later tells Cain, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

Still, in the Book of Genesis, God promises Abraham that he will be the father of innumerable descendants. Years later, when no children have been born to him and his wife, Sarah, both begin to wonder how this covenant will be fulfilled. Sarah, well beyond her childbearing years, takes it upon herself to give her slave woman, Hagar, to Abraham so that Abraham might have a child through her. Hagar delivers Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael. As we might expect with human nature, conflict quickly arises. Sarah does indeed deliver her own son from Abraham – a son named, Isaac. Once Isaac is weaned, and the threat of early death has passed, it is the older son, the presumptive heir, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, who become expendable. In one of the more tragic scenes from scripture, Abraham leaves Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness with a single skin of water, ostensibly to die.

Isaac goes on to have twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The twins are different from birth – and the older son and heir, Esau, becomes the favored son of Isaac, while the younger son, Jacob, becomes the favored one of their mother, Rebekah. Jacob ultimately covets Esau’s heir status so much that he convinces a hungry Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, and (with the help of their mother) tricks their aging and ill father, in his last days, into giving Jacob the patriarchal blessing that was meant for Esau. Fearful of what Esau might do to him after he has taken both the birthright and blessing that rightfully were Esau’s, Jacob flees their home.

Jacob doesn’t escape conflict in his own family. Tricked into first marrying the older sister of his true love, Rachel, Jacob found himself working for his father-in-law for fourteen years before he was able to marry Rachel. Rachel was unable to bear children for Jacob for some time, but her firstborn son for Jacob – a child named Joseph, the eleventh among Jacob’s sons – understandably becomes his father’s favorite. Gifted a special coat from his father and the power of dreams Joseph is hated by his older brothers (the true “spares”), who choose to sell him into slavery in Egypt rather than kill him because it means that they get money in the deal.

All of that family conflict, much of it generational, and we haven’t even made it to the end of the Book of Genesis.

Sadly, family members hurt one another. Each of us has a story to tell of the ways in which we have been hurt by those who should be closest to us.

What we may not always understand so well are the wounds our loved ones carry – wounds that we may have unintentionally inflicted – and how our loved ones have struggled to cope with those wounds.

The scriptures don’t tell us the trauma that Ishmael suffers as he watches Abraham walk away from him – the firstborn son – and his mother, abandoning them in the wilderness…or, the emotions – grief? anger? disappointment? resentment? – that Esau feels when he realizes the lengths to which his jealous and cunning twin brother, Jacob, will go to take away his inheritance…or, what Joseph thinks as he is being taken away into slavery and truly realizes the depth of his brothers’ hatred, surely believing that he will never see his beloved father again…

Each of them has a story that neither Abraham, Jacob nor Joseph’s older brothers hear. And, yes, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph’s older brothers have their stories, too.

I was probably 35 years old when I accidentally overheard several of my cousins sharing stories about the ways they perceived that my mother had mistreated them, physically and emotionally, years before I was born. My mother hadn’t yet been diagnosed with the mental illness that had debilitated her and nearly destroyed her relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. For many years, her behavior had been passed off as that of an eccentric and angry woman. Ten more years would pass before we actually had a diagnosis.

I listened to my cousins’ stories with stunned surprise. I knew my own stories. I certainly didn’t know theirs.

So much damage had been done; my cousins had been hurt and demoralized. Before accidentally overhearing my cousins’ sad stories, I thought that I was the only one who had suffered. I knew in that moment that I wasn’t alone, and as much as I didn’t want to let my cousins off the proverbial hook for not being more of a part of my life, I understood why they had stood back.

All human stories have multiple facets. If we never get around to having honest conversations with one another, we will never really know the pain that others bear.

Before a hot July day in a cousin’s home, I certainly didn’t grasp the weight of the burdens my cousins had borne. I needed to hear their stories. They needed to hear mine. We needed to cry together, and piece together parts of a family story that were so much greater than either of us.
Is it possible, when there has been so much hurt, for members of a family to share stories together, to hear the missing parts of the whole story, to work to love one another through the truth-telling (even if that truth-telling is being facilitated by a trained therapist)? Harry’s memoir seems to beg the question. But if those conversations are possible, they must be entered with open and loving hearts, a willingness to hear and acknowledge one another’s perspectives, a willingness to trust one another with our truths, and a willingness to share openly, honestly, transparently, and prayerfully.

For it seems that only through honest, heartfelt and pain-filled conversations can true healing begin.


Image Credit: Photo by King’s Church International on Unsplash

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