By the time you read this, my elder brother, Jeff, will have arrived on his annual visit from his home in New Orleans. I am looking forward to it immensely. (I have a younger brother, Jack, of whom I am equally fond, but he lives only a few streets away from me, so the novelty value is not so high.)
I have always got on well with Jack but, to be frank, I used to detest my big brother. My resentment lay rooted in my feelings of rejection from him when I was growing up, as a rather insecure, nerdy kid. Like most big brothers, he wasn’t too keen on his whiny little appendage, only 20 months younger, and didn’t bother hiding the fact.
As a teenager Jeff was (secretly) my hero – cool, good-looking and charming, which is why his indifference to me cut so deep. Tension between us continued up until the year my mother died, in 1988, when we were in our 30s. After that, we began to get closer, until eventually we became firm friends. I now can’t imagine life without him, even though he lives 4,500 miles away.
Why am I telling this story? Because it is not an unusual one – or at least the first part isn’t. Sibling rivalry is a profound part of growing up. Many developmental psychologists now believe that whereas once the father, then the mother, was seen as key to a child’s growth as a personality, it is actually the sibling – your first “peer group” as it were – who determines most strongly the character traits you are going to develop.
Most often this happens in a sort of inversion. Siblings – at least when there are only two of you, close together (Jack came 13 years after me) – influence each other most often by defining themselves as not being the other.
This explains why when two people who share 50% of their genes, and more or less identical family environments, so often end up with radically different personalities.
When I was writing my novel about brothers, Under the Same Stars, I did a great deal of research about siblings, and was surprised to find that hatred – of the kind that I felt as a child – was extremely common among brothers and sisters. That dynamic could continue for a lifetime.
Although the hatred is long gone, the importance of my relationship with Jeff is underlined by the fact that a lifetime after I had shared a house with him, I was writing a book which, in essence, was a coded and fictionalised examination of our own relationship.
The book ends with a cataclysmic revelation about the two brothers’ childhood, followed by reconciliation between the two. That theme of reconciliation is the reason I am writing this column.
Because siblings are simply too precious to waste. They are your longest lifelong memory bank, your shared history, the person who may know you better than anyone else (one of the reasons they are so good at getting under your skin). They are so deeply part of your identity that they cannot be erased, even by their absence.
Many siblings grow apart and stop seeing one another altogether. I think that is a terrible pity, and if anyone out there reading this is estranged from a brother or a sister, I would urge them to make efforts to change that situation before it is too late. If Jeff and I can become so close, after half a lifetime of resentment and harsh words, you can do it. Yes, it may end in failure – some rifts are too deep to heal. But if you can find a way, you will never regret it. Siblings are simply too precious to throw away – because, even more so than your parents, they helped to make you who you are.
For the longest time, I was only able to get the supporting role in life. And though you may be thinking, “I didn’t know Safa was an actress," well, I’m not. I literally mean that I always focused on helping others and making them happy for the first 13 years of my life. As the years passed, nothing of significance appeared to stand out in my memories, only glimpses of amusement parks and birthday parties.
Perhaps it was because my long-term memory is weak, or maybe those years were blurry because I didn't focus on myself. When I looked at others, I even saw them as bystanders in their own stories. Other friends tell me that they remember most of their childhood adventures clearly, but I can't say the same because my brain didn't mark my childhood as something that I played a significant role in.
Thankfully, I can tell you that every moment of the last three years is crystal clear because of the precious friends I've made in high school, especially my five best friends. These girls have given me the motivation to become a better person for myself and for others. I used to want to live a "normal" life and only engage in necessary activities but nowadays, I find myself wanting to do more, to do things that I'm interested in and wanting to invest myself in.
When I was younger, I loved writing about anything, and I even won second place in the Reflections Contest in middle school. This year, I joined Odyssey because I wanted to revive the girl who always passionately transferred her words to paper, regardless of the topic. I've started reading books for my enjoyment again, rather than simply for school assignments. A few days ago, I picked up "Coma" by Robin Cooke because I hadn't picked up a medical thriller (my favorite genre) since seventh grade.
There are so many more little things that I've begun to do that bring me joy in the midst of my overwhelming exams and assignments, all thanks to my supportive friends who inspire me and remind me that it's okay to indulge in myself.
Neha writes beautiful stories for her growing fan-base on Tumblr (I'm her #1 fan).
Divya is a devoted gamer and watches true crime shows.
Michelle uses her marvelous looks and brain to ace math competitions (she isn't a nerd, so get that stereotypical image out of your head).
Tiffany creates amazing digital art and equally amazing paintings (I take pictures of every one of her exhibitions in school).
And Emily does covers on YouTube with her lovely honey voice (I'm also her #1 fan).
Seeing them find time for the things that make them happy motivates me to do the same.
The friend who played the largest part in encouraging me to find myself was the one I made on the first day of ninth grade: Neha Satish. I will always remember those awkward but heartwarming five minutes for the rest of my life. Neha and I were both from different middle schools that didn't feed into our high school, so we didn't know anyone. We had noticed each other in first period, and we had seen each other again during lunch. My dad had come to the front lobby to pick me up at the end of the day, and Neha happened to be passing by to go to her car, too. She suddenly stopped in front of me.
“Do you want to eat lunch together tomorrow?” she asked.
I was startled to say the least, yet I was also elated. And so began our beautiful friendship. Neha knows me more than I know myself. I tell her my secrets and worries, and in return, she provides me with encouragement and comfort. Sometimes, we're the exact same person, and sometimes, we're polar opposites.
I used to be very cautious about my opinions around other people because I didn't want to hurt their feelings or cause disagreements. However, Neha and I have so many different views that we share without triggering each other. She taught me to think that my thoughts and opinions were valuable.
When anyone asks me who my role model is, I would tell them it's Neha Satish (so are you, Mom; don't freak out). Neha is a strong, loyal and reliable friend. She isn't afraid to pursue what she wants, and she knows how to make herself happy. This girl never runs out of motivational quips that always have me drowning in tears and gratitude. Without her, I would still be focused on making others happy and supporting them instead of myself.
When I told her that I wanted to start living a better life for myself, she promised me that she would help me through every step of the way and that she would make sure her shoulder was nearby when I needed someone to lean on. And finally, that she would support my every decision.
To this day, she has never broken that promise.