Coming in Second: Where Do You Fit In?

Growing up, I was part of a second set of grandchildren. Although the oldest in my immediate family, I was definitely not the first of anything when it came to the larger group. There was always somebody bigger, stronger, faster, or funnier, making my attempts seem like small potatoes. Intimidated and somewhat out of sync, I soon became accustomed to the idea of playing in the second tier. In her final, dementia-driven years, my grandmother didn’t always recognize us—certainly not as the grown adults we’d become—but she remembered we existed. Sometime near the end of her life, one summer in Tennessee, she was talking to my older, female cousin and kept asking her about, “the other one.” “Where’s the other one?” she’d say. The other one was missing.

The other one was me.

It wasn’t until years later that I heard this story, and doing so evoked a jumble of feelings, not all of which I could identify. I was the granddaughter with the weird, made up name, her nose buried in a book instead of playing games with the other kids, reluctant to participate in the progressive dinners arranged for the children. Being a good deal younger than everyone (well, except for my brother, the Golden Child Who Could Do No Wrong), chubby, overly sensitive, intimidated by my large and loud cousins, and having an awkwardness about me that my socially outgoing and adept parents and grandparents couldn’t understand, I never seemed to fit in. Eventually, I grew to overcome all those characteristics, but hearing that my grandmother referred to me as the nameless “other one,” those uncomfortable memories came rushing back. It’s no fun to feel like an also ran.

While none of this is nearly as pathetic as it sounds, what makes it painful is that these feelings strike such a stark contrast to how I think about myself today. By nature and by temperament, I’m way more likely to carry myself as an alpha. However, in the circle that was my extended family, I was definitely a beta. Perhaps the reality is that we are each, to some extent, betas in our own alpha world, but to be reminded of our “lesser” status is as unnerving as it is dissonant. For me, it’s a useful experience because it helps me retain perspective, keeping me from drowning in a sea of self-absorption. As I processed the swirl of contradicting and illogical emotions that arose when reflecting upon my grandmother’s perception of me, a realization surfaced: in the murky, confused depths of her mind, I still had a place. She continued to note my absence and wanted to know where I was. Maybe I wasn’t so much of an also ran. Maybe the other one counted, too…

Where in your life do you feel like yesterday’s news?

Setting aside all understandings that you are your own shining light, blah blah blah, every one of us knows what it feels like to come in second or last, disappearing into the faceless crowd. But this is not a bad or dehumanizing thing; instead, I choose to frame it as a “correction” of sorts. A reminder that we are just one of many on the conveyor belt that is life. So, let me ask you this: how has coming in second somehow been a favor? What insight have you gained as a result? How might you apply this to help others who struggle with similar issues?

Recently, I met someone whose son is a junior at the University of Alabama. Intrigued, I waxed on a bit about the Crimson Tide and asked how he was enjoying it, expecting to hear about the football team and the pride that goes with attending a flagship school. “He hates it,” she regretfully replied. “He’s an engineering nerd who attended a tiny high school here in Northern Virginia and he feels lost in a place so big. But, he’s got a full-ride scholarship so he’s sticking it out.” Hearing this answer made me sad for him. “Well,” I offered, “having that experience may not be such a terrible thing in the long run. Feeling that sense of displacement may make him more empathetic as an adult.” His mom nodded. “We all know what it’s like to stand on the outside,” she mused. “This is just his turn to do so.”

Growing up in the shadow of my raucous and colorful cousins cultivated within me an acceptance for feeling like I was on the outside. In truth, much of the time I was grateful that I was too young or nerdy to be invited along because they usually wound up in colossal trouble for doing things I wouldn’t want to do, anyway. Having spent so much time lingering on the fringes of their activity, now, when I find myself in similar scenarios I take it in stride. Watching as people rush to form their own little coffee klatches or happy hours or closed business meetings, thrilled by the clubbiness of their posse, I wryly smile at my feelings of wistfulness. The wanting and the not wanting to be with them. I have sympathy for the other one offs out there, who seem to have no natural group—but feel no need to rescue them. There’s a distinct comfort in knowing how to paddle one’s own canoe.

For the many out there who fret about such things, I gently remind you is that coming in second is ok, too…We’re all “the other one” on occasion.



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One Response to “Coming in Second: Where Do You Fit In?”

  1. Jim Patterson Says:


    You make some good points. I have found that the transition from this type of thinking comes when we recognize our mission in life which is irrespective of what others do or think of us. Not always easy to do but so much more fulfilling. I think about Bob who writes many great books and yet few read them. Yet, he carries on with his mission of putting out the truth as he sees it and that by itself is his reward. In fact it is deeply meaningful to him.


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