Essay: On the limits of sibling comparison

Margot Besnard, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

Media Credit: Emily Robinson | Design Assistant

I think of Charlie, my older brother, when I sit in my historical geology class. Charlie is now a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa. But just three years ago, he was in my place: a senior majoring in political science, wondering what to do after graduating from GW and trying to make it through that last G-PAC requirement.

It’s strange to think that my brother, who recently sat listening to the same professor discuss the same PowerPoint slides, now lives happily without Wi-Fi, a toaster, sidewalks, running water, air conditioning and most of the other things I consider essential elements of my daily life here.

As I consider my future after college, the boldness of Charlie’s decision to leave behind everything that made the U.S. home, and the satisfaction he’s gotten out of his move, makes me wonder if getting a regular job in the U.S. is what I really want.

Over the years, I’ve found myself striving to be more like my brother while maintaining my individuality. These days I’m trying to determine whether our overlapping qualities and shared values mean I should also pursue a unique adventure, like he did. But the comparisons cause me to wonder if comparing myself to my brother will actually help me at all.

My mom reminds me that it’s important not to measure happiness against someone else’s, to be myself the way I always have. It’s a helpful reminder to pause and reflect on how we judge ourselves and others. But comparisons aren’t all bad. Comparing is a fundamental tool we use to get to know ourselves. Rather than try to stop the process entirely, perhaps a better prescription is to dig deeper and examine both why we’re drawn to the comparisons we use, and how to analyze them in a more nuanced way.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t understand how he could spend so much time by himself. I would bang on his door and beg him to talk to me about his friends and whatever happened at school that day. Eventually he would open the door and let me sit on the floor next to his bed. I’d talk to him while he read or played computer games, responding with an occasional murmur.

Media Credit: Cartoon by Julia Korsyn
Cartoon by Julia Korsyn

One week into my freshman year in Thurston Hall, after I pushed my bed from the four-person room into the secluded study alcove, I realized that for perhaps the first time in my life, I felt how Charlie felt all those years: I wanted solitude. I’ve always been more extroverted than he is, but when we were at GW together during my freshman year and his senior year, I began to understand that my budding need for alone time was coinciding with his growing comfort in being a leader.

Seeing how I changed in comparison to my brother gave me a better sense of my own character. There is a big difference, however, between that kind of reflection and the type comparing I do when I consider our paths after graduation: If I stay in the U.S., I might be able to make a decent salary doing something that interests me. But I won’t learn French like Charlie did in Burkina Faso. I won’t spend as much time reading books and thinking about life as he does in a village without cell phone reception. My friends probably won’t be as interesting as his fellow Peace Corps volunteers.

These comparisons quickly become negative, and sometimes even turn into jealousy. Each one diverts the admiration I have for my brother’s experience into a stream of self-doubt. A more general, nuanced comparison still may not lead me to know exactly what to do next, but it does help remove the stress of assessing every option relative to my brother’s experiences.

Recognizing that allows me to step back and see that the essential components of Charlie’s life could be part of mine in a wide range of jobs and locations. He has opportunities to learn new things, take on new responsibilities, challenge himself, make new friends and, most of all, he’s doing something that inspires him.

I’m not completely sure where I’ll end up after college. Most likely, I’ll stay here in the U.S. For the first time, my path will divert from Charlie’s, and I might not make so many direct comparisons between our lives. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t learn from how he’s grown and changed — because that helps me see how I can, too.

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