Knowing that bad things happen to good people, I have always had a soft spot for have-nots. Indeed, I can’t even walk down a city street without giving everything in my pocket away. I am a caring, giving, and generous person – or so I have always told myself.
That’s why I struggled so with my reactions when my brother asked me for money. Why was giving money to a member of my family such an emotionally difficult question?
Here is my story.
One evening, I received a call from my brother. ” I have a small favor to ask you. Can I borrow $5,000?” My immediate thought: A SMALL FAVOR? Are you kidding me! But I kept my feelings to myself and listened.
His vehicle is his livelihood and he needed a new one. He wasn’t making enough money to provide for his family. He had to make the change. Since the cost was $10,000 and the bank would only give him $5,000, he needed me to give him the rest.
Because the vehicle was used and old, I worried that it was a bad investment. But when I tried to get more information he got insulted, insisting it was all thought out. “If you don’t want to give me the money then just forget about it”. I ended the conversation by saying that I couldn’t make the decision alone. I would have to discuss it with my husband.
My husband’s approach was very objective. “Ask your brother about his business plan and, if it is well thought out, lend him the money.” For him, it was easy. Give him money so long as it was being put to proper use and would be paid back.
Outwardly, I criticized my husbands’ approach as uncaring and judgmental. I wanted him to say: Just give him the money and don’t worry about getting paid back. Deep down, however, I agreed with my husband but didn’t want to admit it. It was easier to blame him. That way, I could maintain by self-image as a kind and selfless person, wiling to give without any preconditions or expectations – even as I held my brother at arms-length.
I was also reluctant to deal with the reality of my brother’s history of impulsive decision-making, poor judgment, and alcoholism. Given these issues, I started to agonize about the difference between lending a helping hand and enabling. In the end, I decided that turning him down, while emotionally difficult, was the best decision. Instead of $5,000, I gave him $400 for the first month of his health insurance. He made no further requests.
A year and a half passed and my brother’s situation continued to get worse. He was on a train heading for a brick wall. He was barely working and couldn’t pay his bills. So, once again, he asked for help. This time I gave him $500 and my parents provided additional support. But I was tired and angry. My parents and I were giving him our hard earned money because he was drinking his money away and spending it on a woman we didn’t even know.
But my anger quickly changed to guilt when the news came that my brother had tried to kill himself – and very nearly succeeded. I couldn’t stop thinking: Why didn’t I not just give him the money? It would have been so easy. It would have relieved his financial burdens. And yet even in the midst of these unrelenting thoughts, I knew – in another part of my brain – that it would only have been another band-aid.
It is now several weeks later and I still have to decide what to do. My husband and I don’t’ want to turn our backs on someone who is trying to do the right thing. But we have also decided that we cannot give without preconditions. We have to know that the money is being used for a good purpose.
So we are only going to pay specific bills – for a doctor’s appointment or medications – instead of giving him a lump sum. And while there are also many non-monetary alternatives, these choices just feel too emotionally draining. For now, we are going to limit ourselves to money.
So back to my original question: What has made giving to my brother so difficult? It is, I suspect, my sense that it can’t fix the problem and might even make it worse by enabling his self-destructive behavior.
In the end, I could only do what felt right at each particular point in time.
And the questions continue: How much should be give? For how long? And when does it end?