Let me start by clarifying that two is not the middle of four. It's the halfway point but not the precise middle. The middle in my mind is the dormant space between my third sibling and me. I have rejected the middle seat for a very long time given its lack of glory, leadership role and hardly any rights at all. However, over the years, my third sibling and I have reluctantly accepted our position as the collective middle. That cute bottle of wine circulating at Trader Joe's called Middle Sister helps.
I mean, who wants to be the middle? You're not first. You don't have the right to land, title, and today, unequivocal parental praise. And of course the eldest will wax on about how they carved the way and had it tougher but we all know that is a ruse. Nor do you get to be the baby, the product of relaxed parenting and doling of deep unconditionally warm emotions... because the parents can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and they're suddenly sorry it's over.
That is far from reality when you are the middle. In the middle, thoughts are more along the line of, "Why did I do this and when will it end." So it makes sense in our age run by the baby boomers forever looking for any angle to be noticed from the crowd that it seems more valiant, rewarding, sure-footed to sit on the extremes. Add to this, that in an age of blogging, pundits, and TED talks, having a strong or even extreme opinion that divides, seems to pay the bills. And so here we are, approaching yet another election, without a middle: No middle income, no middle view on the environment, middle road, and moderation. It's green juicing or Monsanto. It's the Kardashians or NPR. It's super zip codes full of millionaires at private schools or broken public education.
I never really thought of myself as a middle child. But over the years I have been constantly reminded that both my temperament and the reactions of those around me place me squarely in the middle. Early external signs included the eldest in our family of four kids becoming the Messiah, as only first-born children can. When she went off to college - a mere 45 minutes away - every holiday, including summer, resulted in extreme preparations and anticipation for the arrival of the Messiah. Even her bedroom was left as a shrine while we middle sisters used duct tape to divide up our 100-square-foot-shared bedroom into singular privacy. It wasn't only my parents who set this up: we were all enablers. I missed her leadership, comfort and placeholder having been shucked into responsibility from the security of the middle the minute she boarded the bus. I tried on her seat only to be dragged back into the middle when my younger sister stole my hairbrush, doll, book, bike and we looked around aimlessly for the eldest sister to weigh in. Silence ensued but we learned something. We learned to negotiate.
My little brother, the only male in our sibling sequence in a traditional family, would have made an excellent prodigal son - but he arrived nine years too late. His was and still is living the life of the free spirit. As the baby, my mother prepared what one could imagine as a Seder table when word arrived he was nearby... awaiting Elijah's arrival every day. He is the traveler whose moniker is YOLO (You Only Live Once). The table is always set, the wine glass waiting and when he arrives, it's literally the second coming: Every single time. Why wouldn't you want to be on the end of a spectrum? The middle can kind of suck. But it can also bring everyone back to ground. The middle child, often comedic or dramatic, reminds the family packed into the car on their way to the ski hill or beach crying that things might not really be ideal. They strip off the veneer and point out the obvious, "I'm unhappy, I'm uncomfortable, aren't we all? Can we roll down a window or something?"
Over the past fifteen years, the extremes of America have risen and grown louder. They were so obvious at the turn of the century as we watched the Iraq war divide us into encampments. And today as I scan the American landscape I longingly see the middle hollowed out. US economists have long warned of the 'death of the middle class' and yet the country continues to bifurcate to polar extremes. Where is the middle child? Like any species, I worry the extinction will further destroy the delicate balance of our ecosystem.
The middle keeps you honest. From an early age, the middle child has to innovate and engineer an alternative way for their parent's attention. They also learn the power of their unique position as a hybrid where they can gently tap the nearest sibling on the shoulder and suggest they tone it down. This is likely the most important role of the middle class. They need a seat in the same classroom alongside the uber wealthy and the financial aid child in America because there is no gain in polarity - it only leads to more inequity and often resentment. The middle knows how to harmonize. Harmonizers invite the dreaded opponent to dinner because when you are perched in the middle the only way to cope is to invite everyone in, to cross the aisle. Without a pole position, the middle child has learned that the power structure doesn't afford them anything else but compromise, unless they prefer complete isolation.
The hollowing out of the middle in America has led to the greatest gaps in income, food and education inequity. What I am encouraging is an ethos that values the middle for the power it has to encourage fairness and sharing while still celebrating competition and the ability to win. If there is no middle, the winner might soon find no one is there to cheer them on.
And as I grow older, I have come to appreciate what the middle represents and why it is vital to a society's well being. Being the middle asks us to part with our ego and find a solution because inevitably as the middle child, you always shared a room.
Stand up this election season middle children and be heard.
Heidi Legg founded TheEditorial.com where she interviews visionaries from Cambridge, MA.
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