The Fear of Being Second: The Political Is Personal

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The Mark of Cain

This first and second business is really quite old: Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, who were farmers, already ejected from the Garden of Eden before he was born. Second-born son Abel comes along, a shepherd, and pleases God. Cain can’t figure out why God prefers Abel’s offerings, gets jealous, and kills Abel. God punishes Cain by making him work hard and struggle for sustenance that used to come with ease. He also forbids anybody to kill Cain, because Cain must endure his punishment for a very long time.

Bad Guys May Be Punished, But Good Guys End Up Extinct!

Abel, Adam’s second son, is pleasing to God but Abel is also, well… dead. Annihilated, along with any offspring he might have produced. His was a line cut off forever. Murderous Cain gets to rule and populate the world, to continue being first, but at a very stiff price: God puts a mark on him. Some perceive the mark as requiring Cain’s descendants to wander the earth as perpetual outsiders, tolerated but not embraced. Others, especially in modern times, perceive the curse as having dark skin, but that doesn’t fit the rest of the domination narrative: Cain prospers, something people with dark skin are not expected to accomplish.

More often dark skin is associated with the punishment of Noah’s son, Ham, who appears on the historical stage later on and is punished because he sees his father naked and talks about it. Now that the innocence of Eden is no more, nakedness is a source of shame and the body must be covered. In these early days long before the flood, God does not seem to be in the least obsessed with domination: there is no one else around, His dominion is assured, and He is quite comfortable with First Man for company. Apart from that bit of serpent drama in the Garden, things don’t really get complicated until there are more and more of Adam’s progeny on the scene.

The Price of Victory

Over the centuries the descendants of surviving brother Cain go on to rule the known world, but they also carry the stigma and dread that others will eventually learn of their ancestors’ wrongdoing and eject those descendants from the family of humanity. Perhaps in this story lies the true foundation of another great and powerful American fear, the fear of annihilation. More about annihilation later in the series.

The First Sinner Was First Man

Cain is actually the second sinner in our creation story. The first sinner is none other than his primal father Adam. Adam disobeyed God. He ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. He blamed his weakness on Eve.

Eve, the second sex, is taken from Adam’s own rib: an intimate part of him but also separate from him. Somehow that projected portion of the once undivided self becomes responsible for Adam’s fall from grace because Adam is too weak to resist Eve’s powerful feminine wiles. Subordinate, lesser, dependent on Adam for her very existence, yet possessing some mysterious power over him. In her own way, Eve could be as seductive as the snake! Ah, woman!

The Second Sex

To be fair, the sin of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was not really Eve’s fault: in her innocence and subordinate status, she was seduced by that wily snake who was an old hand in the Garden and apparently preceded both Adam and Eve in this earthly paradise. Although fashioned from Adam’s strong body, Eve was perceived from the very beginning to be congenitally weak and a lesser being. The truth, however, is that Eve’s very existence was the result of Adam’s weakness, his inability to hide from God his deep sense of loneliness. How could Adam know that God had created him, Adam, because God, even in His perfection and infinite completeness, was also lonely? Who would tell Adam that it was compassion, not judgment, that prompted God to create a companion for him? That it was divine loneliness that prompted God to create the entire physical universe, including Man? It is possible that Adam felt weak on his own, forgetting that he was made in the image of God. Forgetting that “God don’t make no ugly,” as my grandmother would say.

Eve was lesser, and yet she must have been pretty powerful for the fall from grace to be all her fault because it was she who offered the forbidden fruit to Adam. Adam accepted and ate the fruit, of course, but he blamed Eve. The snake, on the other hand, was just being itself: a snake. The snake belonged to another order of consciousness, held to a different standard. While punished and made to crawl on the ground, the snake was not judged as harshly by its maker as humans were judged. It was Adam’s and Eve’s awareness as human beings that caused our primal ancestors to be summarily ejected from the Garden of Eden and thrown into an exterior world of perpetual suffering and struggle. This was a peculiar quality of consciousness offered uniquely to humans: the ability to discern, to label behavior good or evil. Most importantly, this human quality grants its creatures the capacity to choose freely between seemingly irreconcilable opposites.

Meanwhile, those ancient women – Eve first, and later Sarah and Rebecca – all resort to cheating to manipulate tradition. They steal the firstborn son’s birthright and give it to the second born instead, ostensibly following both prophecy and God’s command. She who is the second sex is Adam’s companion but God’s handmaiden; she offers God’s blessing and grace to one who is the second-born son. The women don’t steal for themselves, mind you, but for their younger male children. Nevertheless, such action is still their fault, not God’s. Woman is a conundrum and the subject of a much longer conversation; she is far too much to tackle here. Gender will take a while to unravel for sure!

The Sins of the Father

So in the second generation, Adam’s eldest son Cain kills his younger brother in a fit of jealous rage. This is the second major sin, another very long story, and conceivably the antecedent of what may be a universal fear, not just an American one: the fear of annihilation.

Centuries later, the Protestant Ethic is born, a worldview that acknowledges an eternally sinful self, but also offers a get-out-of-jail-free card: financial success. One can demonstrate God’s favor by signs of outward success and wealth: domination of markets and people and creatures and things. There is no fixing original sin, but grace and the right lottery number will save the lucky few from the jaws of eternal damnation. What begins as Jewish success and patrimony is now co-opted and embraced as Protestant Christian favor.

Eventually, Cain’s progeny embraces the Protestant ethic and makes it to the New World, where the mark of Cain gets interpreted through the lens of America’s peculiar institution of slavery. Not only did God give Abraham all the land he could see before him six thousand years ago in the fertile crescent, but God also gives him now – the Christian patriarch this time – land he could not see or imagine across vast oceans and centuries as well. As before, it doesn’t seem to matter that these lands are already inhabited by others who have been there a long time: God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham of old, patriarch of several peoples who believe themselves to be the chosen ones with a divine right to rule the world.

In the New World, the mark of Cain gets shuffled off at last – or so it seems – onto others whom the settlers deem unworthy: indigenous peoples on every continent and every island; African rulers and African slaves; Asians, Pacific Islanders, Micronesians and Polynesians; indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as on the Australian subcontinent; lesser southern, eastern, and Catholic Europeans; and Middle Easterners from the Levant or ancient Fertile Crescent, including the very Jews and Arabs from whom the narrative was taken. Here white Europeans, preferably Protestants, can begin anew; they can leave the old curse behind and create that “shining city on a hill.”

Cain Was Not the Only Bad Boy

For some reason, Americans love bad boys. We revel in our successful rebellion against the British crown, but we also need to prove ourselves to be as good as, or better than our Anglo-Saxon ancestors and cousins. We eschew monarchy, but we strut like peacocks in our veiled attempt to establish a new one with a distinctly American flavor. Our version of dominance establishes divine right through massive land ownership and awesome technology retrieved from endless colonial exploits and cultural expropriation.

Our “America First” narrative obscures the fact that the land was taken from others who were here thousands of years before we “discovered” it. Artifacts reveal that highly structured civilizations preceded ours. Consequently, fear surrounding the great lie of being first becomes even more entrenched, while the subsequent arrival of competitive nonwhite immigrant groups activates the peril of white extinction. There was no human in the Garden of Eden before Adam, but that was the last time Man could claim a pristine habitation free from preceding cultural expression.

Here we create new bad boys: Paul Revere, John Brown, Davy Crockett, Generals Patton and MacArthur. Some were praised, some were vilified, some were both. Each represents and shapes a fierce independence of spirit, ignoring the bad stuff for now. Each was fearless in his own way, each distinctly American. Each was larger than life and yet the fears persist. We still have something to prove.

Imposter Syndrome

Modern-day descendants of Cain in the U.S. remain petrified of being discovered to have been linked to that ancient fratricide involving Cain and Abel. Contemporary lingo would probably call this emotional dysfunction “imposter syndrome.” Men rewrite history to project their own weakness and disfavor in the sight of God – their mark of Cain – onto any “other” whom they encounter. The new narrative promotes their favored status instead. The larger and more diversified the world, the more opportunities for projection. Yet in our hidden places, in the cave of the eternally sinful self, we feel and fear that the status of being first is fundamentally undeserved: that Cain only got to dominate because Abel – good Abel – was dead. We got to be first because we wiped out the people already here.

Adam is riveted with questions and so are we: “Would my first place gain have held if Abel were alive?” “How can I truly know how I might have fared had I not stacked the deck and killed off any kind of competition?” Since my competitors are dead in most cases – clearly by my own hand in the case of Abel and many colonized peoples – I can never know for certain. I can never rest on my laurels and take my success for granted. I must prove myself over and over: collect more territory, dominate more creatures and cultures, build exterior signs of my having been. I must demonstrate that Kilroy is here and here to stay!

Cain’s Lament

And so we have it, Cain’s personal lamentation: “As a founding member of the Being First Club, the most I can ever get is contrived fanfare and praise among those I have created or dominated or favored. What began as the source of my joy and pride has become the setting for my worst nightmares. I am caught in an infinite loop – my own form of ‘Groundhog Day®’ – where the same events play over and over until I go mad. I have destroyed the only true source that could have told me how good I am or helped me prove my skill. I could have ended the nightmares and stood on the podium proudly, pointing my finger at those lesser mortals who claimed to be first. Alas, I killed them all.”

We come right back to the beginning. Abel is good and Abel is meek and Abel is dead. Cain is angry and a few generations later Esau is angry because what is rightfully theirs goes to a younger, goody-two-shoes brother! They are betrayed by God, but it is woman who is blamed and thrown under the bus. She does God’s handiwork and fulfills His prophecy yet she is the damned, the eternal second, the one who wreaks havoc and turns the social order on its head by subverting the rule of the firstborn.

To make things even worse, Jesus comes along and turns the spiritual order on its head in addition to the political one. “The meek shall inherit the earth. Love thy neighbor as thyself. The last shall be first and the first last. Welcome the fallen like Mary Magdalene. Heal and embrace the leper. God is love, not retribution. Throw out the money changers. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven. My kingdom is not of this world.” Oh my!

The Modern Expression of Cain

So what do I accomplish by claiming my need to be first? How does my admission change the narrative, if indeed it does at all? Why do I feel shame when I claim my desire to be first, to win, to succeed? Because it goes against the other part of the biblical narrative, the New Testament; it goes against the grain of being a good Christian. Because I would no longer be meek and modest.

Abraham and his progeny did all right in the Old Testament, proclaiming divine right and divine punishment; but then along comes Jesus and turns that pyramid on its head: “… the meek shall inherit the earth.” I am done for. Furthermore, the farther I move away from my founding principles of the separation of church and state and towards the establishment of a theocracy, the more my very own religion showcases my flaws. “I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” KJV Matthew 25:40

Is the U.S. Playing Out a Modern Version of Cain and Abel?

Is there a difference between the simple desire to be first and the more complex sins of imperialism, colonialism, or white supremacy? Can we distinguish what makes our desire to win any different from any other country’s? We declare as a nation that we hold to a different set of values, but are we fooling ourselves? Is our declaration that we are first and best a device to help us feel better about our behavior? Finally, has the special history of the United States solved any of the problems that plagued European settlers? I think not. The sun has indeed set on the British empire; are we next?

Truth be told, secretly we believe that Asians are smarter and Africans are stronger and Arabs are more ruthless and determined to rule the world. We cloak our fears and declare that we must get them before they get us. China has become our current bogeyman; before that ISIS; before that Communism; before that miscegenation. Are we actually helping to manufacture and strengthen our enemies by the labels we sling around and the policies we enact to avoid our deep-seated fear of the other – any other?

Where does the truth begin, where does it end, when does the story we tell no longer look like the truth? When does the truth that we are no more nor less than any other part of teeming and varied humanity release us from our almost psychotic fear of being second? When will our declarations of freedom actually set us free? When will we learn that being second is not the kiss of death, but the embrace of life at its fullest? There will still be mountains to climb, visions to manifest, connections to make, peoples to know. There will be endless potentiality!

Being first means that we wait for the inevitable: we wait to be toppled by one, then another, in an endless succession of challengers. Being first means being consumed by fear: not only the fear of being overthrown but the fear of extinction. The only way to assure that we continue to live in the hearts and minds of the world is to discard the fear of being second. Unless we do this, there will be no one left to praise us. We will find ourselves again facing existential loneliness, a yearning so deep that nothing short of creating an entirely new world outside ourselves will suffice. In this authentically brave new world, Abel lives and so does the United States of America.

Published by Helen L. Stewart, Ph.D.

Endlessly curious, writer, speaker, blogger, intuitive, author, consultant. Retired university academic administrator and faculty member. Citizen of the world. Traveler. Human being. Perhaps in reverse order.

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