Pressures of success: 'Many of us black people will know what that means'
What we don't see behind the success is the pressure of other's expectations of you and the fear that comes with that
When the late Professor Bongani Mayosi delivered a speech about 12 years ago, he credited his parents for his love of learning, and their sacrifices to enable his accomplishments.
“My siblings and I owe a great debt to our parents for instilling in us a love of learning, and to our mother in particular, who suspended her own career as a nurse for 14 years to raise and almost singlehandedly educate her brood of five children,” he said.
Many of us black people will know what that means – many of us are the first in our families to ascend to loftier academic and professional careers. What doesn’t leave us, appreciation aside, is the feeling of indebtedness to our parents for their selflessness. We feel the responsibility to not drop the ball, a responsibility to make them proud, to do things by the book, in order to repay their tenderness and backing.
While I’m not married, I’ve always imagined that it remains with us until we’re old enough to start our own families – and until we pass away. Earlier this year, we marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing, so I decided I was ready enough to visit a therapist. After four sessions and enough tears to wash a minibus, she told me that my problem was that I believed I had to be in control of everything – that I believed that anything otherwise would be met by my mother’s disapproval from above. We talked about trying to “compartmentalise” things, and to prioritise things that matter most first, which included my mental health (or “self care”).Professor Mayosi had a wife and children. When he ascended to the position of dean of health science at UCT, he was also responsible for training young medical students and helping shape their futures – helping them help others defeat a myriad of ailments. He’s been quoted as saying that our country “is a collision of four epidemics”, which were: mother and baby health risks; HIV/Aids and TB; chronic non-transmissible diseases such as diabetes and heart disease; and violence. Those are a lot of people with expectations of you; a lot of fears to allay, a lot of trust placed upon one man’s shoulders, and an intense devotion on his part – such a position requires that as the minimum.
One of the great myths of success is that the higher we climb up the ladder, the easier it is to delegate certain responsibilities, but for black men and women, the rungs are not only further apart from each other, but the pressure to not trip over is immense when also navigating predominantly white spaces. It is greater because we know we cannot fail – failure often means relinquishing any future promotions and opportunities reserved for only a handful of us – even when you have ticked all the prerequisite boxes. Failure means waking up from your fall off the ladder to find those most reliant on you standing over your bruised body, asking themselves: “What now?”
This is not a myth or a wild generalisation.
I remember the empty shell my father had become by the time he was on his deathbed. By then he had no answers, as if he had spent most of his career (as a school headmaster, the eldest of his siblings, and a husband and father to two sons) answering to others’ requests and expectations, that he was lost for words as to how to get out of his rut. He would never manage to get himself out of it. We didn’t have the answers for him either; how could we when we always looked to him to resolve complications and dilemmas?I don’t know how my father felt, because he never shared much – I never knew what he aspired to be from a young age. Perhaps he never shared because his dreams had to be deferred in order to do what he had to do to repay the sacrifices of his parents, and to ensure that his wife and children aren’t hindered too. We’ll never know because he had to be strong in front of us and on our behalf, be the captain before he could attend to his own mental health.
The strange irony here is that, while many people may identify and empathise with my story, just as many will be shocked to hear of Professor Mayosi’s suicide. We still can’t fathom how people in authority or in high-ranking public positions can suffer from depression and other related mental illnesses. For as long as we’re still mystified by Robin Williams’s suicide, or those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, we’ve not woken up to the scourge of mental illness. What we should be asking ourselves, rather, is why we’ve been so slow to aim our attention at solving the poor psyche among our people – and how we can do that. If we’re not cognisant of this, we might neglect the chance of Professor Mayosi’s wife and children falling into depression and, because of genetics, the higher chance of them having depression too. The alarm bells have been going off more frequently than we’d like to admit.