Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When Is It Time To Stop Enabling A Person's Failure?

Dear Tazi:

I am the eldest of three children; two girls and a boy. My brother was the youngest child and I say “was” because he is no longer a child but a 40 year old man. His entire life he has acted outlandishly in an attempt to be the center of attention. Being the only boy, this may have happened in a white, two-parent family but we are black and were raised by a single Mom, and that means our experience was much different than the one Norman Rockwell presented.

Our Mom never babied any of us. She told us that in order to be successful a black person must try twice as hard as a white person and only expect to get half as far. We witnessed how hard she worked to become a successful businesswoman and my sister and I never gave her any more trouble than can be expected of two girls, and tried to give her a lot less than that. We helped out around the house without being asked because we knew that was what was expected of us and did our best in school because Mom always told us that an education is the key that will open any door. Mom is full of aphorisms like that, but through the years my sister and I have discovered the truth in them and have both managed to build solid middle class lives – maybe even upper-middle class, by some standards! My brother is another story. The man is a complete train wreck.

“Darnell” had a difficult childhood but he brought it upon himself by always trying to one-up everyone. His constant need for attention got on people’s nerves, and our Mom – who wouldn’t stand for it – would often punish him for his bad behaviors; a slap of the wrist (literally) for interrupting someone when they were talking to teach him to wait his turn, a spanking for behavior that posed a danger to himself. My sister and I both received the same punishments and learned from them, but Darnell whined that he was being singled out because “Mama likes girls better”. To this day Darnell cannot see that it is his own behavior that has kept him from experiencing success and he continues to blame our mother – and now our sister and me – for his life’s failings.

Darnell graduated high school with high hopes of becoming an actor because he wanted a stage and an audience for his antics, but discovered that most theatre production companies require that you study acting in order to compete with those who have. Darnell went to college to study theatre and dropped out – three separate times, all for reasons unrelated to things he can control (of course!). He blamed producers for not casting him, calling them racist (even though other minority actors were cast); he blamed the school for cutting off his financial aid (even though he was failing his classes); and this last time he blamed the family for “not being supportive” of his goals, claiming the disappointment he felt about us missing an opening night was enough to send him into a spiraling depression. Tazi, our Mom was in the hospital recovering from an attack of gall stones! We wanted to be by her side and were very upset with Darnell for not asking his understudy to cover for him. From our point of view the spotlight was more important to him than his own mother!

This past summer, Darnell decided that he needed to move clear across the country to Hollywood to immerse himself in the acting business. He cut me, my sister, and our Mom out of his life for discouraging this move, since he had no job waiting for him and no savings to live off of until then, but then called us when he needed money for car repairs. My Mom sent him the money in hopes that he would start talking to her again, but once the check was cashed he shut us out again.

Darnell keeps in touch with my nephew, and my nephew has told us he is worried about Darnell. He was living in his car and showering at a local homeless shelter while he looks for work, but he recently had to sell his car so now he is living in the homeless shelter, too, and saying that the experience will make him a better actor. He is claiming that it will help him to become the next Samuel L. Jackson! He doesn’t seem to realize that Samuel L. Jackson is still working quite steadily and that producers can call Mr. Jackson’s agent if they are looking for him!

Darnell has never been good at holding down a regular job, and has had more jobs than years of life so I can only imagine what his employment history must look like on paper. I am very worried about my brother and would like to ask him to come home, but I am afraid if I do that I will be on the hook for his care (since I was the one who encouraged him to come home). While I don’t mind helping him get back on his feet after this latest failure I do not want to have him living with me until success comes along, At 40 years old I think it is time to give up the dream and grow up!

I have talked to my sister about things, and she says you just have to let Darnell sleep in the bed he has made; that any attempt at helping him will backfire and you will be accused of not believing in him. I am considering writing to him to invite him home for Thanksgiving, and even offer to pay his airfare if he books it now while prices are still low. I figure once he is here maybe he won’t go back…but then I am afraid I will be stuck with him in my guest room. Before he moved, Mom was stuck with him in her basement. Now that she finally has her house back, I can’t put her through that again. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place and need an outside opinion.

Loving Sister Or Enabling Sister?

Dear Loving Sister Or Enabling Sister?:

You can be both, you know; it isn’t an either/or situation; in fact it is because you love your brother that you seek to enable him…just not at such close range that he would actually be living with you. You mention that you and your sister took to heart your mother’s words and worked hard in school and in life to find success. This had to be a difficult task, especially since the reality of your mother’s words reflects a bitter and awkward truth in a society that likes to claim it is color blind. Could it be that these words did not inspire your brother but rather angered him? It can be difficult to find success in life when your viewpoint is colored (was that a pun?) by wrath. With every perceived slight, with every failure to accomplish his dream, your brother’s life has slipped further and further down a slope that he seeks to climb.

For purposes of length and respect for your brother’s privacy, I had to edit a lot of the details you shared but in each anecdote – as in the ones I did print – you fail to see your brother’s viewpoint. While I think he comes off as self-centered (it is rude to interrupt someone, and he could not expect your family to abandon your mother’s side while she was hospitalized) you must understand that the life of an actor is not a traditional lifestyle. Opening night is a huge deal for anyone involved in a show; to send on his understudy could have been a career-killing move in a career that is already on life support.

While I think Darnell made a hasty move by moving across the country without having any way of supporting himself, it is his life to live – not yours. Maybe this is something he needed to so for himself, and maybe the reason he cut you out of his life is because he is tired of the discouragement that he received from you, your sister, and your Mom. While it was generous of your Mom to come through for him with money for car repairs, it is not up to you to fix the dynamic between them.

If you want to see your brother for Thanksgiving, then I suggest you invite him; offer to pay his way only if he refuses on the basis of transportation costs because to do otherwise might insult him. Now that your brother has had the chance to live on his own with nobody to offer him support (financial or in-kind offers like a place to live) perhaps he will better understand the importance of following through with what is required of him – acting classes, if not a degree in theater; a polite demeanor that attracts people, as well as the ability to listen; and acceptance of the fact that not all dreams are meant to become realities. I know many actors, writers, and artists who have settled down into lucrative, paying careers who continue to do community theater and freelance work on the side. You should bring this up to him only if he talks about the trouble he is having finding work as a successful actor.

If Darnell talks about wanting to move home, let him talk and offer your opinion only if he asks for it; this way, you cannot be accused of discouraging his dreams. Suggest that he make a plan on how to make it happen first, and even offer to help him structure that plan – work, community contacts, a professional agent, etc; strike a balance between his goals and the reality that currently is.


P.S. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historical “I Have A Dream” speech, which echoed sentiments expressed by the Black Sociologist W.E.B. DuBois in his book, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), "sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins" (I mention this here because he is all but forgotten!). How far we have come towards attaining the goals expressed by Drs. DuBois and King (and countless others) I cannot say; I can only say that all peoples, regardless of color, must continue to strive towards the goal of equality for all, so that someday no mother will have to teach her child to expect less success for more effort!

Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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