Yesterday I received a rather desperate phone call from a relative of mine named Sam.
I used to spend a LOT of time with Sam growing up. And back then he was an amazing guy.
Sam was the kind of person who was so charismatic that you felt happy and excited just being around him.
He was an incredibly positive person with a keen interest in helping others.
I remember how frequently he used to start some meaningful project to benefit his community, or quite often less-fortunate people thousands of miles away that he had never met.
Sam was also incredibly successful. He was just one of those people who always seemed to be able to make money. And over the course of his life he amassed substantial wealth.
Sam was constantly learning and creating; he was in to art, science, technology… a real Renaissance man.
Most of all, Sam was a person of rock-solid integrity. He stood up for his values, and the rest of us deeply respected him.
I’m really grateful to have had his mentorship for so long, and I know that I’m a better person as a result of his influence.
But starting around 15 years ago, Sam started to change.
He went through a major personal crisis… the kind of thing you hope to never have to experience in life.
It was absolutely terrible. And the entire family rallied around him in support.
I personally spent several years of my life going to bat for Sam, and I sacrificed a lot for him. The whole family did.
But Sam never recovered. In fact he just got worse.
He started making the most incredibly bizarre financial decisions, squandering away his wealth in ways that just seemed completely crazy to the rest of the family.
He had dozens of businesses at that point, and ALL of them were losing money.
But he refused to make any changes. He refused to tighten the business spending. In fact he started spending even more, squandering what little wealth he had left.
We tried to help. Some of his accountants approached us at one point and gave us a snapshot of Sam’s finances. It was gruesome.
This guy had easily been the wealthiest person we had all known. But he had been reduced, at least on paper, to poverty.
His debts were astronomical, and he hardly had any savings or assets left other than his house and a few fancy antiques.
But Sam refused to believe it; he insisted on living like the multi-millionaire he had always been, even though he no longer had any income to support his lifestyle.
It was so bad that the entire family had to chip in and start putting money into his bank account on a monthly basis.
But whatever amount we could muster was barely enough to cover Sam’s most basic living expenses, let alone all the luxury he was accustomed to.
And we couldn’t even begin to make a dent in Sam’s debt burden, which was growing by the day. We found out later that he had even gone into debt with some pretty shady characters.
We tried intervening again and again. But Sam wouldn’t listen.
And despite all the help and support we had extended him, Sam ultimately turned on his own family, attacking the people who loved him most.
He used to ring us up, and sometimes even show up on our doorsteps in the middle of the night, demanding money… screaming that we had an obligation as a family to pay him.
He even got violent with some of my relatives; with others he broke into their houses and stole from them.
At some point there was a complete mental breakdown, and he became totally paranoid. He started taking letters from the mailbox and reading our mail.
And he even ratted out a few of my relatives to the authorities for some petty violations of the municipal code.
A few members of the family started to distance themselves from Sam; at that point the guy was a loose cannon and becoming dangerous.
We found out later that he started embezzling funds from his companies. He’d taken money out of his employees’ pension accounts for his own personal use.
And he’d leaned heavily on his reputation in the business community to build a giant fraudulent pyramid scheme.
It was really sad.
Sam had changed. There were always good days and bad days, and sometimes I would occasionally see flashes of the old Sam.
But for the most part his desperation had made him petty, deceitful, and abusive, even with his own family.
And the man I had once known– that strong, honorable Sam who always stood up for what was right– was long gone.
He and I had once been so close, and he was such an important mentor in my life.
But at a certain point I had to recognize that there were too many things about another person’s life that were beyond my ability to fix.
I will always love my Uncle Sam and be grateful for his life lessons and the fond memories of our time together.
But I finally had to move on with my own life and become free of his destructive behavior.
It was a hard decision. But I know it was the right one.
It’s natural to want to help family; but to continue enabling someone so abusive only makes his problem worse.
And I realized that the old Sam still exists. He’s within me. And all the rest of the family.
The best thing I can really do for him is to emulate all the good qualities he used to have… and continue to live by most important values that Sam once stood for.
Sam may be your Uncle too… because Sam is America.