help me not to lose my wonderful brother
March 18, 2009 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I want my brother back but he seems happy as he is - selfish or sensible?

Apologies in advance for this extended question - there's no way to say it quite right in any fewer words.

My brother, who is now 20, used to be the most intelligent, thoughtful and most of all funny person in our family. Myself and my other siblings were all a little envious of his ludicrously quick wit and unique sense of humour. He excelled at school and had a few very good friends. He found a lot of pleasure in sport and art.

However, in the two years since he started at university, doing art, he has changed a lot. Mostly for good, but I worry he is taking some things too far. This could, however, be my ignorance rather than his problem.

First he became interested in Buddhism, and he became a lot more focused on yoga and vegetarianism. Then this progressed to meditation and eating largely foods he found in the wild. Alongside this, he has stopped going out with friends beyond 10pm. He no longer plays any sport as he rejects the competitive aspect. He is leaving his university course as he no longer wishes to create artefacts, and prefers to "just live". I believe he wishes to return to a much simpler way of life.

I think this has made him happier, but it has also made him change in a way I do not like. He rations words in the same way as food, and does not talk unless about something crucial. He says he does not wish to put too much importance on maintaining long-distance connections with people - I worry we will lose touch if I do not call him. Worst of all, his sense of humour seems to be slipping out of reach.

OR... is it just my sense of humour which is stuck being crude and gratuitous? Is it my lifestyle which is the problem, and my attitude? I would like to think not, but perhaps it is me being left behind I don't like, rather than him changing?

If you have any similar experiences, from both sides of this situation, please help me to understand how to approach this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Chances are that your 20-year-old brother will live this way for awhile and come back into the fold the better for it.

I would wait it out. Very few people maintain this lifestyle after their early 20s. I went through a similar phase myself, and am very thankful for it. Having lived that way allows me to connect with the peace that a person can find through meditation and simple living when I really need it.

For what it's worth, I think my family felt the same way.
posted by nosila at 9:57 AM on March 18, 2009

It sounds like he’s well on his way to enlightenment…..kudos to him! The reason (or main reason for me, shall I say) for becoming Buddhist is to achieve happiness and ending suffering. If he is being successful in this path, I would be happy for him. If you would like to better understand where he’s coming from, I think this book is a good basic introduction. Buddhism is complex and certainly not something that can be understood from a couple of books, but it would be useful to understand the context he’s coming from.
posted by texas_blissful at 9:58 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: He's 20 and (you didn't say, but I imagine) striking out for the first time on his own and learning about different ways of life. I don't know much about Buddhism so I can't speak to that and I'm not saying religion is a "fad", but I have known young people and students to interpret newfound ideologies very literally, very quickly. I'd wait and see where he is in one or two years before panicking too much.

I remember being enraged with capitalism/greed and thought it was noble to refuse to participate in the economy when I was in school. I didn't realize how this panned out in reality until I realized I didn't want to leave Canada nor did I want to be destitute and live with my parents. School is a fun, semi-consequence-free time to play with new ideas but they don't always stick forever.

Others may have ideas about how to bond with him if this turns out to be a long-term committment... but I thought I might give some perspective.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:00 AM on March 18, 2009

If it's made him happier, I think you'll just have to deal with it. Did you think he was going to stay the same as he was, especially once he began experiencing new things and new ideas? Damn few of us stay the same once that starts happening. Just keep the lines of communication open and be happy for him as he explores the possibilities of life.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:00 AM on March 18, 2009

Best answer: Radical changes in personality and values are common at that age. There is a possibility that he will be that way for the rest of his life, and treat you and the rest of his family as worldly attachments he needs to let go of, but it is much more likely that this is an experiment in self-definition, and he will keep some part of what he is growing into now, and will also find some way to keep in touch with his old self. Don't call what he is doing "just a phase" though, that kind of thing is incredibly presumptuous, and dismissive of what could be real and valuable transformations he is going through. He is changing. Most people who change, change back a little bit. Give it time, people in that age range need lots of patience if you want to stay in their lives (I should know, I was one of them, and in my 30's I am slowly getting back in touch with my family).
posted by idiopath at 10:01 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh and if you learn more about Buddhism, you may come to appreciate the fact that your brother chose a peaceful way of life and not a gang or some other horrible thing.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:05 AM on March 18, 2009

Thanks to all the answers so far.

Can I point out, Perplexity, that I am *aware* 20 is a young age. I'm his sibling, I know him well. He is exceptionally mature for his age, always has been. Hence the added degree of worry. There's no need to be patronising or flippant just because of his age.

I know it may be something he "just needs to get through". I just feel so sad when I think of losing him for that time, and not knowing how long it will be.

It may be there is no easy answer. Still, I appreciate all input.
posted by greenish at 10:06 AM on March 18, 2009

My brother, who is now 20, used to be the most intelligent, thoughtful and most of all funny person in our family.

From what you've described here, it sounds to me like he's still intelligent and thoughtful, albeit not as funny. I'm not clear on why you used "used to be" to describe his intelligence and thoughtfulness.

As far as "eating largely foods he found in the wild," if he has the knowledge necessary to avoid poisonous things, and is getting sufficient nutrition, that sounds OK to me. If he hasn't educated himself sufficiently to distinguish poisonous foods from safe ones, or he's experiencing significant rapid weight loss or appears ill, that's legitimate cause for concern.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:13 AM on March 18, 2009

Best answer: This is something I've been dealing with a lot lately.

To find some peace on the subject, I had to realize that my close childhood relationship with my siblings was not sustainable, and a bit abnormal. Wanting to keep the relationship that we had was understandable, though not particularly realistic. People grow. People change. And while it is nice to have siblings who are your friends, the blood relationship does not guarantee that level of affiliation.

I have also found some peace in accepting that I too have changed over time. It makes it harder for me to criticize my family members who are changing when I can recognize that I am "guilty" of the same thing - only I don't see it as guilt because I'm doing it.

I think one of the hardest bits about this whole situation is not feeling as though YOU and YOUR FAMILY are being personally rejected by his decisions. I know, for me, it often feels as though my sister has examined our life and our values, found them to be lacking, and is now seeking something superior to us. That's painful. And I'm not sure that there is anything that can be done to assuage that pain except to experience it and let it run its course.

posted by greekphilosophy at 10:22 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

He is exceptionally mature for his age, always has been. Hence the added degree of worry.

Maturity doesn't always mean "fixed in one's ways." Sometimes maturity involves self-examination and conscious acts to change oneself.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:30 AM on March 18, 2009

I don't care how mature you think he is, he's 20. Next week he'll be into going to raves and dropping peyote with Mexican surfers in Amsterdam, then he'll become a macrobiotic vegan who wears bindis and works in a Californian medical marijuana store, then he'll suddenly move to the East Coast and get his MBA and become an married accountant. Oh no wait, that was my sibling. Chill out and accept him for who he is right now, neither you nor he needs to change before you're ready.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:31 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like he's on a very interesting journey... but I wouldn't worry too much. With only a very few exceptions, the "grown up' Buddhists I know are funny, light-hearted people who are unbelievably good at balancing the desire to live simply with the complexities of modern life. (For example, I know a Buddhist teacher who is thrilled to be able to text message with a family member, but is also very aware that it's easy to say hurtful things when messages are so short and curt, and therefore has resolved never to say anything other than positive, loving things in a text message.) But many of them - maybe even most of them - went through a phase much like you're describing. One of the funniest, most radiant people I know (again, Buddhist teacher) said she went through a phase around that age where she was absolutely sure she'd never speak again because she was so horrified by the unconscious ways she was acting. It doesn't seem to be an uncommon thing - people who begin to examine every aspect of their lives carefully soon realize that they habitually do things they don't like, and in the process of making some changes, they can kind of go "AWOL". I bet your brother's characteristic liveliness will return when he learns to trust himself a bit more.

Mind you, I'm 23, and possibly in the midst of the same forest, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about!
posted by Cygnet at 10:44 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just feel so sad when I think of losing him for that time, and not knowing how long it will be.

You're not "losing him."

He's growing up, learning to be independent, take responsibility for his actions, and figure out what he wants from his life.

It's natural to be sentimental and a little wistful about the past. Consider that parents can be proud of their adult kids while still having a pang of longing for their little man discovering ice cream for the first time. But yeah, it would be selfish to never want kids to grow up.
posted by desuetude at 11:17 AM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems like he is likely meditating a lot. When I was in my later 20's I meditated a lot (at least 45 minutes a day, every single day for 2 1/2 years and a continuing high rate (5 misses a year) and spoke much less during that period. I'd bet he's meditating a lot more than that.

but have you asked him about it all? Don't say you don't like the changes, but that you would like him to explain to you what he is doing and what he's going through.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:32 AM on March 18, 2009

What everybody else said. I went into a Zen monastery for 2.5 years when I was 20, and my parents were aghast. I came out of it intensely grateful for the opportunity to have practiced in that way.

What I am getting at by way of anecdata is that your brother's trajectory is pretty common, and from your description, I am not seeing any red flags.
posted by everichon at 11:58 AM on March 18, 2009

Here is one angle you may/may not have considered:

As someone who considers himself Buddhist, of the things I struggle with in my personal relationships is the concept of "attachment". As a Buddhist, I understand the positive benefits of letting go of the desire to be attached to things (doesnt matter if those things are material things (tv, money, car) or relationships (family or friends). In fact I'd go so far to say that over the past couple years I've gotten very disciplined at easily letting go of pretty much most common attachments. (I have no TV, I have very few possessions and definitely dont want more, I do not get upset when friends drift away from me,etc)

So while it may seem very weird to you,.... it may seem perfectly normal for him (while he is exploring Buddhism) to minimize his attachments. To be more clear: what I'm trying to say is that the desire to minimize attachment doesn't care what the "thing" is. Letting go of your TV is no more easier/harder than letting go of attachment to a family member. Non-Buddhist sometimes have a difficult time understanding how this can be, because so much of our society is built around assigning value to things depending on how strong our attachment is "supposed" to be to that item.

I'm sure your brother is not acting this way specifically to cause you grief. (one other note: just because your brother is exploring buddhism and possibly lessening his mental attachments probably doesnt mean he loves you less. Quite the opposite actually, the deeper he understands himself, he might come out in the end appreciating life more deeply and finding ways to interact more deeply/subtely with his relationships)

My advice: appreciate your brother for who he is (during this moment called "NOW") He will appreciate your non-judgementalness. Go to a park together and sit. Be still. Be quiet. Enjoy the experience of just being with him. Pressuring him to fit your (or societies) expectations of what he "should" be doing--- is the exact wrong path to walk.
posted by jmnugent at 12:18 PM on March 18, 2009

This will sound harsh, apologies before hand, you might want to skip this comment.

You need to focus less on your brother, but more on you and why you feel the right to have expectations on what kind of life your brother chooses to lead.

I think this has made him happier, but it has also made him change in a way I do not like. Think of the colossal arrogance of that comment. He changed in a way that you don't like? Tough shit. As long as he changed in a way that he liked and he changed in a way that is still good and moral , i.e., he isn't going out beating up people or drinking at the bar til all hours, then it is not your affair.

You sound like a helicopter sibling. Stop that. Now. In answer to your askme query, yes you're being selfish, and to remedy that you have to respect him and his choices as long as they don't conflict with your morality and worldview.

Apart from obvious amorality, if he wants to be a veg, or a Buddhist, or a Hasidic Jew, or a fundie Christian, or a mute penitent that is his choice and his life. Just because you are related, you've no right to expect him to lead an idealized life of what you think would be cool for him.

The only exception is that when he says that "he does not wish to put too much importance on maintaining long-distance connections with people" it is not a cover for clinical depression. That is legitimate for you to be concerned about and to even butt in a bit.

Also, as others pointed out, he might likely change. So wait it out and respect him.
posted by xetere at 2:48 PM on March 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think this has made him happier, but it has also made him change in a way I do not like.

Think of the colossal arrogance of that comment. He changed in a way that you don't like? Tough shit.

That was my first reaction, too. It's obvious you care a lot, which counts for something, but "He's happier and I don't like it" is an astonishingly selfish thing to say.
posted by mediareport at 3:24 PM on March 18, 2009

If you strip away the various rationales, Buddhism, vegan, etc., the loss of his personality could, maybe, be because he is depressed.
posted by bz at 3:47 PM on March 18, 2009

Yeah, my friend had a 20-year-old vegan brother who seriously had a guru that he'd signed up to learn from and who meditated for about six hours a day.

Next, he became a professional dog-walker and drank a lot. He sold the dog-walking business for $60k and went to Europe and India. He came back because the $USD was too weak.

Then, he started working at a restaurant and playing with, like, a calypso band.

Now, he's back in school and working part-time and wants to become something like an accountant.

Life is long; age 20 is when you're trying everything. If you're really worried about losing him, follow him and take up meditating yourself.
posted by salvia at 7:36 PM on March 18, 2009

You need to focus less on your brother, but more on you and why you feel the right to have expectations on what kind of life your brother chooses to lead.


And I say that speaking as the child who feels the rest of her family has expectations about who she should be that they haven't let go of completely yet. You may love who your brother was before -- I'm sure my brother loved who I was before. But that person wasn't me -- that was the person I could sense my familly wanted me to be. And when I finally had the stones to start being more like the person I actually felt I truly was, they couldn't handle it for a while -- and there's a subtle distance between us now, that I truly wish weren't there and that my brother and I are only JUST beginning to acknowledge and dismantle. But I still don't really entirely trust that my family knows who I really am, largely because I think they're still hanging on to an outdated idea of who I was.

...Something tells me you don't want to end up with your brother trusting his friends and seeing them as more of a family than his actual family is. What you're doing now could cause him to feel that way; just the way it happened to me.

Just food for thought, there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:23 PM on March 18, 2009

Pointing out that your framing of the question is selfish - a point you yourself already acknowledged - is hardly "bashing." We're saying, "yes, you are being selfish." I thought astonishingly so.
posted by mediareport at 5:32 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: Being a member of a funky religion myself, people often, well - more if it's a well *known* religion, give a lot more lee-way to strange behaviours if they are 'religious' than otherwise.

I mean, major dietary changes, dropping former activities/goals etc, and withdrawing from (all?) social ties/relationships, losing his sense of humour (other posters - don't belittle that. There's losing your sense of humour in the face of bigoted ideas, and there is losing your sense of humour because YOU have become the ideological bigot) -
can be a 'little' worrying.

I understood your question as being - is this something I should worry about, or am I just being selfish?
Understanding that the latter may be a motivation, is very self-aware of you, and you seem to have presented the information as objectively as you can, possibly to the detriment of your own reputation (come on, this is the green - how often do people not present it as entirely 'their side' of the story? And how often do commenters NOT go on to follow those own cues? Ie congratulating the self-congratulators, and bashing the self-bashers?).

And futher counter to other posters, people can be incredibly self-destructive AND happy. Many drug users walk the 'not-running out of money' line for YEARS and have a fantastic time as long as they do so!
Many cults inculcate a sense of contentness/happiness WHILE being very socially and/or individually damaging.
Worrying about someone who 'seems more happy' is not necessarily out of line.

If his behaviour seemed cult (in the negative, rather than 'cultus' usage), then that would be perfectly 'in line'.
If he's part of an ideology/group but the group seems fine, then it's just his own personal journey - try talking to other Buddhists he deals with (not random ones), about how you love him as a brother, and want to support him in his journey, but that he seems to be growing more distant from you all. They are some of the most likely to be able to reassure you. Also, if he is going overboard by their standards, they could discuss with him about how to maintain his personal and spiritual personal growth while keeping connection with others - maintaining compassion, and metta for loved ones, as well as responsibilities to family and livelyhood (if they have such standards, which many Buddhist paths at least, do).

And yeah - be willing to accept recommendations as to meditation or retreats you could investigate, small dietary changes. Maybe he's onto some good things?
posted by Elysum at 11:43 PM on March 19, 2009

FWIW, although I tend to be an intensely private person, I may be able to offer a (limited) perspective from the other side of the coin, should you desire. MeMail if you're interested.
posted by geckoinpdx at 2:51 AM on March 20, 2009

I would be OVERJOYED if some of my family members made the changes your brother has made.
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:46 AM on March 20, 2009

Hmmm.... I seem to disagree with most of the other comments here. I am very close with my sister- she is my lifelong companion, my constant confidant, and the person that I have the most fun with in the world. If she underwent a change that made her distant from me, it would break my heart. That's what seems to be upsetting you, not the Buddism per se, but the fact that he's grown distant from you.

I think you should talk to him about it. Ask him how he's doing. Tell him that you miss him, miss having conversations and laughing together. Maybe this isn't just a phase and you'll gain some understanding and insight to his new lifestyle. Ideally, he can figure out a way to have the spiritual lifestyle he seeks without alienating himself from his family. I think Elysum has some good advice above.
posted by emd3737 at 9:02 AM on March 21, 2009

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