It amazes me how the most successful people are both terrorized and motivated by their past. And it dumbfounds me that the rest of us are complacent with our mundane life and have no desire to change it.
During the last few months, I’ve come across such people. I’ve read snippets of life stories of film director, screenwriter, actor, producer, and singer Kelsey Grammer; actor Charlie Sheen; actor Robert Downey, Jr.; British film director and screenwriter Steve McQueen; and film director and producer Lee Daniels, most of whom have a painful past.
A terrible childhood causes you to internalize your pain, act out in ways you find hard to understand, or puts you on a path of self-destruction. For Kelsey Grammer, he married four (4) times. For Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey, Jr., they used and abused drugs. And for Lee Daniels, meth was his choice for desensitization.
You might say their pain humanized them, pulling them in modicum degrees from their celebrity status. Though that is true, there’s a remarkable wrinkle in the faces of these people that we tend to overlook, a wrinkle that’s a combative foe and a warm companion, possessing a distinctive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde persona. More amazing is their ability to maneuver around this persona, even when they don’t think they’re moving at all.
Somehow, Kelsey Grammer(1) can be stoned out of his mind, whether it’s from cocaine or alcohol, and the minute he steps on a set, like a flip of a switch, he proves to be an erudite with an extraordinary ability to transform into Dr. Frasier Crane at the mere sound of “action.” Lee Daniels’ movie Monster’s Ball won him high acclaim as he directed Halle Barry to an Academy Award performance. During the Academy Award ceremony, he sat at home sulked in self-pity and went on a meth-high. Then he went on to direct the 2013 movie The Butler. And oooh, didn’t that movie take me back. He portrayed the 1960s in superb fashion. Thanks, Lee!
Occasionally, some people get confused and tangled in their maze of conflict, mistaking the past for the present; twisting reality, borrowing flurries of fantasy to get through the moment. Sometimes they find themselves in a straightjacket or tied to a bed. Too often the pain isn’t personified so clearly; the change isn’t so obvious, so drastic. For the most part, many retreat and hide away, unleashing their troubles behind the walls of their home, lashing out at their wives, husbands, and children, indulging in self-pity and self-doubt, dousing themselves in self-induced comas aided by cocaine, meth, heroine, alcohol, and eating disorders.
Sounds too much like fiction?
Lee Daniels’ story(2) bothers me most. Not because he’s gay. Not because he has a belief system different from mine. But rather, like many of us, he couldn’t see. After being beat with an extension cord for exploring his feminine side by wearing his mother’s pumps, his father threw his forty-two pound frame into a dumpster. Daniels came out of that dumpster loathing his father. Who wouldn’t? God warns fathers not to exasperate their children (Ephesians 6:4). But Lee Daniels, whether he realizes it or not, came out of that dumpster with something he hadn’t counted on—determination, and enough hate for himself to set off an atomic bomb. He came out of that can with a fire lit under his behind. He was mad and needed a target. A forty-two pound kid doesn’t sit around scheming to retaliate against his father. He’s got sense enough to know he’d lose that battle every single time. So, what is he to do with all that built-up anger? What does he do when he’s not accepted by his peers? When he’s bullied by school children?
People have a tendency to point the anger at themselves, rarely toward the person inflicting the pain. The twisted side of this is that pain sometimes fuels us in positive ways, driving us beyond the dream stages of success to the very pinnacle of it. When
you untwist this debacle, you find that, like Lee Daniels, you can’t see the
success you’ve created. It’s buried too deep in loud voices of “you dummy . . .”; “you worthless piece of . . . “; “and what made you want to become a writer?”
Lee Daniels’ anger drove him to the farthest corner of a school room where he honed the craft of filmmaking like none other and became a success. But he left something behind. The past. It always seemed to lurk in the fog, one step behind him, chasing him, haunting him, screaming at him that he was worthless cow dung, unable to keep a fire going on the warmest winter night.
Isn’t that’s why he sat home on the day of the Oscars stoned on meth? Why wasn’t he at the Vanity Fair after-party celebrating his film’s success? Halle Barry had just won the Best Actress Award for Monster’s Ball—the first African-American female actor in years—a film which Lee Daniels directed. Why wasn’t he happy?
The same reason we fail at our goals each year. The same reason we haven’t done a thing we intended within the last five or ten years. The same reason we have yet to taste the sweetness of a victory. We don’t believe. We’re lazy. And we’ve grown accustom to failure. It’s a part of our DNA now. Whenever we do conjure enough strength to believe in something, it’s the wrong voice we’re drawn to because it’s the loudest sounding in our ears.
Lee Daniels kept that tape recording of his father’s nasty words playing over and over in his mind until he had it memorized. With perfect understanding, he knew the precise moment he should play it again. Oscar night was his night for a rendition. Why? You see, there’s no way this little guy could grow up to be somebody. If daddy said he was a worthless patch of dung, then he was. No way he’d ever be successful. Too many odds against him—an African-American male pursuing a profession dominated by white America.
There lies part of another problem. Too much is under the blanket of prejudice. We are all prejudice. Yes. I said it! We are prejudice. For one reason or another, we are. I don’t like your long thick hair, cause I don’t have enough of my own. I don’t like those crazy things you do with your hair, cause mine is too fine. I’m African-American. I can’t ignore the divide in this country, even if I tried. It’s in schools, in hospitals, in churches. There are days when I think we are no further along today than we were in 1841. Then I think again and realize my perspective on life is closely intertwined with my success. I can’t afford to hold on or blame everything on the color of my skin. You might. I won’t.
The heart of the issue here isn’t to have a flawless life or expect perfection from those around us. There’s no such thing as life without pain. Whether you’re White or Black, Asian or Mexican, if it wasn’t the color of your skin that was at issue, it’d be something else, and usually is. Maybe they hate your lack of organizational skills or your endless, meaningless chatter. Maybe they resent your promotion, or your ability to transform an idea into an award-winning bestseller. Still, there comes a time when we have to look at the recordings embedded in our minds and recognize good from bad, right and wrong, bad people from good people. We have to stand against our adversities and say out loud “You have no more power over me. This is my life. I’m running this. You can’t intimidate me anymore.”
We must also take time to look at our success (because no one is a complete failure), something Lee Daniels chose to ignore for a time. How can such talent be housed in such a wretched man? It can’t be because the truth is he isn’t wretched at all. He’s flesh and blood—no worse than you, no worse than me, and let me remind you—no better either. His poor father was wrong to treat him so harshly. Instead of beating Lee, he should have taken him fishing, taught him how to put a roof on a house, taken him to a baseball game, or each summer taken him on a trip across America to explore different cities.
Few of us can say we had a perfect childhood. Such is life.
We dream, set goals, and we fail, having no idea what success feels like. Too often we measure success by our material wealth. That’s too bad because I don’t have nearly the wealth of an Angelina Jolie or Sandra Bullock, but I still consider myself rich, successful, powerful, and highly motivated. Go figure!
I can’t help but wonder, though, what is it that keeps us from reaching our goals? Money? Bad parents? Your job? Your spouse? A terrible past? Lack of education? It’s all excuses. Too afraid to move forward? Who wouldn’t be with the past you and I had? But here’s the beautiful part about all this: If messed up people like Robert Downey, Jr. (and let’s hope his life is truly on the mends), Lee Daniels, and Kelsey Grammer can make it, why can’t we?
There is talent in each of us that goes untapped year after year, day after day. What are you waiting for? The right time? Better work hours? The beauty of life lies in the journey. Though the journey has many pitfalls, twists, and turns, don’t forfeit the journey by waiting for better work hours, a higher salary, better parenting, or apologies from dead people.
Kelsey Grammer, Lee Daniels, and Robert Downey, Jr., I’m sure, could make a movie about themselves and not come close to scratching the surface of their pain. But when reading snippets of their lives on the internet, you can relate to it, because, after all, their pain parallels with your own, and with mine. It’s not flawless lives that breed success. It’s the ability to rise above the fray that sets you apart. It’s what you do with your life in spite of what you’ve been through that determines your future.
Whether you’ve been beaten, stabbed, abandoned, left for dead, stolen from, lost a child, lost a spouse, been overworked, taken on children not your own, or feel crappy and alone, you can rise above and experience success. There isn’t a job in the world that works you so many hours that you can’t spend one hour a day fulfilling your dream. There’s not a chaotic house on this planet that is so disruptive that you can’t steal an hour to devise a plan for success. There aren’t enough mean people in the world to make you believe you can’t succeed. Choices come from within. Every tape recording embedded in us can be taped over. You can choose to plant a seed of hope within your soul. You can choose to read positive messages, be around positive people, and make better choices.
The danger? Being in a hurry. Thinking that success will fall from the sky one of these sweet mornings is a quick way to not only discourage you, but also make you miserable.
Where you lack ambition and drive, dream big, dream the unimaginable. Need purpose and real happiness? Give to those who can’t repay you. Stuck in a rut and having a hard time getting out of your mundane routine? Turn your day upside down and do every single thing differently. Don’t do a thing the same way again. And keep stirring your life up until you feel invigorated, until you find out what works for you. Is your horrible past keeping you up at night? Get to your computer, or grab pencil and paper and write down all the things you ever wanted to do in life. Choose ten. Get started on five of them. Now. Tonight. No money? Offer to do something for someone, asking for something you need in return.
Life is filled with sad stories. Why shouldn’t we use them to motivate us toward success? Is your story any different from Lee Daniels’? Kelsey Grammer? Charlie Sheen? Whatever your story, there’s a thin membrane between the words of life and the words of death. It’s a choice. Choose life. Choose success. Make your life different by disrupting your routine. Get out of your rut. Devise a plan, mess it up, devise another, and another, until it feels right.
Need a pity party? Read about Lee Daniels, Kelsey Grammer, Charlie Sheen. Whatever you do, don’t create a pity party for yourself. These guys have enough drama to keep us motivated for a lifetime. Dry your eyes. Get to work. Stay focused. Success is ahead of you. Grab hold of it!
If you don’t remember another word I’ve said, remember this: Success doesn’t avoid you. You avoid success. Stop running from it. Choose to embrace it!
(1) Kelsey Grammer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Kelsey_Grammar
(2) Lee Daniels’ story: http://www.out.com/out-exclusives/out100-2013/2013/11/13/out100-lee-daniels
Donna B. Comeaux
Freelance Writer, Poet, Author
January 7, 2014