Notes & Essays

The Beauty in Lying to Yourself

It’s like the world has been rubbing our noses in it. Broken government. Police brutality. A global pandemic. Climate change. Awash in harrowing realities, Joshua Ferris discovers the sustaining power of everyday fictions.
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I hugged my father goodbye for the last time in a hospital room in March 2014. He was a seven-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. No one thought he’d make it much longer. He was laboring to breathe, and I was due on book tour. It was, he said to me, now or never, kid.

Pride insisted he climb from the bed on his own. He had to negotiate around half a dozen tubes. But then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them as I had been doing for forty years. He whispered that he loved me and we wept and shook in each other’s embrace, the profoundest love and the profoundest loss expressed in one gesture. Over our grief, neither of us could hear the cosmic laughter.

For it is never two sad jerks in a hospital room who decide the when and where of a last goodbye. He hung on for four more months, by which time the book tour was over and I was back at his bedside in the fresh hell of enlightenment: Final embraces do not get scheduled. Death toyed with him until he could no longer stand, or open his eyes, or speak. Our final final goodbye was a one-sided affair, uttered into the void.

That I had any control over death was the first illusion to crumble. The second fell the instant he died.

I believed there must be some compensation for watching a man die. Part of me even wondered if a cartoon angel might lift out of his still-warm body. Okay, not that, but . . . something. The loaded book that falls from the shelf. The providential bird that lands on the sill. There was nothing. He had his run. He breathed his last. The dumb oxygen tank beeped and respired until, ten minutes later, someone thought to turn it off. The peace and quiet were outrageous.

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A flawed but decent man, my father had three children, four wives, and a dozen careers. He preferred dreaming big to a day’s honest labor, which brought him grief. But he was eternally seduced by life and its possibilities. By the time their marriage ended, my mother des pised him.

“I thought he was a con man,” she said to me. I had decided to write a book about my father—grief will do that to the writer—and I was gathering facts on its behalf. “He was hell-bent on making a killing. I didn’t give a damn if he made a killing. I just wanted him to make a living.” When she found herself pregnant with the con man’s baby, she explained, she considered having an abortion. This was news to me.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean with . . . ?”

I pointed at myself. She nodded.

“But in the end, I decided against it.”

“So I gather,” I said.

I was so disillusioned by death then, so beset by grief, and so uncertain about the point of life, that I had mixed feelings about whether she’d made the right decision.


Why had she gone through with it? Why did she fall in love with a dreamer in the first place? Maybe she didn’t know him. Or hoped to change him. Either way: I was the product of a romantic illusion.

Illusion is not just what glitters but what greases every joint and hinge. Beyond verification but not completely bonkers, illusion is best distinguished from delusion by example: However far-fetched my belief that one day I will be elected president of the United States, it isn’t the patent absurdity of believing I’ll be the nation’s first president. That distinction belongs to George Washington—and I am delusional. Illusions are more benign. Idiosyncratic yet universal. We grant them a grudging citizenship among our stricter sanities.

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Once, my whole world was Sesame Street. But by ten, I could think only of playing for the Red Sox. At sixteen, it was the game of 9-ball and the girl next door. At twenty, I had dreams of an Airstream trailer and the bohemian life, but five years later I was shaved and showered and starting a career in advertising. I turned thirty in Brooklyn, when my whole life was a new bride and drinks with friends. I woke from each of these serial dreams always for some more serious business, my real life dawning at last, only to wake again, and again, and wonder: Where does the succession end?

A harder reality rains down on the man turning forty. He must eat better. He must drink less. He must get off his ass. He wakes to a life of curbs and limits. I turned forty the year my father died. When he expired, I was next in line. His death was brutal. I said goodbye twice; that he said it only once says it all. Was that my fate, too? Why, then, do anything? Why dream?

If all else was confusion and death, I could still take comfort in one thing: the book I was writing about my father. I had written novels in the past. I would write a different book this time. An honest account that would permit no illusion, distort nothing, hold fast the truth. It was, I thought, now or never, kid.


Meanwhile, the disillusionments kept coming, and not for me alone. Trump was elected the night I turned forty-two. How many illusions vaporized that day? That democracy was eternal and wise. That history was progress and progress inevitable. When all that was revealed for bullshit, we were at last who we always were: a far cry from the fine folks in myth and song. And for four years running, we went off illusion cold turkey, replaced by a steady diet of bitter truths.

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My stepfather had this little trick for whenever the dog relieved itself inside the house: He would seize it by the neck and thrust its snout to within an inch of the offending turd. No matter that the dog had long forgotten its culpability in this charade. The big man was teaching a lesson—in human cruelty, if no other. The poor beast would try digging in, eyes wide, but it could find no stay on the tile floor, and the man held it fast. It was crucial to the sadist that the dog stare long and hard at the mess it had made. This seemed the cardinal exercise of Trump’s time in office: clamping the populace by the neck and forcing it to stare at the fact of its own excrement. Those next few years did more damage than can be measured in inventories of lies and cruelties. We entered not only the obvious national crisis, but a significant subconscious one that could have assumed the title of a Flannery O’Connor story: A good man is hard to find. Men like me—white, straight—had to abandon the illusion that we stood for anything good. Even what passed for goodness might have been little more than self-serving constructs by those who stood to benefit from it the most. A good man was a hall of mirrors.

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As these modern times piled up, I began to take less comfort in the true account I was writing. Was illusion the real enemy? Or was it disillusionment? Partisan politics, grotesque lies, police brutality, terrorism, drone strikes, atomic bombs, climate change: The death of dreams extended to the breaking point. What I needed was not more brutal truth but a good reason to go on. Piling up the cold hard facts of my father’s life, while necessary to acknowledge, did nothing to inspire or delight and left out so much that was essential: his optimism, his vitality. It was as if, by focus- ing exclusively on the facts, his bankruptcies and busted marriages, I were telling the history of the world by looking only at wars and plagues.

And then, as if real life were writ in a grand narrative—a common illusion—plague we got.


Now I have to tell you a bit about Dan Budd.

Budd co-owns a café in Red Hook, New York, not far from where I live. Taste Budd’s Cafe is a hangout with open-mic nights and homemade fudge. Budd, a famed pastry chef, was lying sleepless in bed one night when Covid hit eighteen months ago, just prior to the statewide shutdown, worrying about his family, his neighbors, and his café. In a moment of widespread collec- tive retreat, Budd decided he had to run the other way. It was just a website at first. A few lawn signs. A helpline. The name: Red Hook Responds. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, scope unknown. But in a global crisis that would keep people isolated and homebound, Dan Budd could foresee meeting a few immediate needs: reducing the fear, and feeding the hungry.

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The helpline served a dual purpose: to sign up volunteers and to field requests. Budd partnered with a local foundation. He was able to fund restaurants suddenly struggling for their lives to make dinner for area residents, which he delivered free of charge. Within six weeks, Budd’s organization had more than four hundred volunteers doing grocery and pharmacy runs, chatting over the phone with the lonely and the dazed, and delivering fresh nightly meals. I was one of those volunteers.

For all of Covid’s many carnival sideshows, the main stage was always one of sickness and death. I got two goodbyes when my dad died; now you were no longer guaranteed even one. How we part from the dying and how we mourn them proved two more contingencies of an unstable existence. As if that were not disillusionment enough, work ceased. In America, where we take work seriously, a great source of meaning vanished or contracted in a matter of days, leaving behind uncertainty and hardship. I, too, found work impossible. At last, everyone was working as I did: from home, and in search of motivation. It should have been business as usual for the writer. But what was the worth of writing books in a world that had ground to a halt, the last of its illusions stripped away, replaced with social distancing and death?

By then, too, the work itself—the one guarantee in grief—was failing me. Because life has no limit, a book equal to life should have no limit. It was unfinishable. And after five years of prepandemic isolation, of exhuming the past and calculating the failures, the pandemic came along to put a finer point on what the project always intended to teach me: Where illusion is lacking, life is all played out. We need dreams to survive, even the irrational ones. And illusions thrive best in a work of fiction, because fiction is crucial to life. To give an honest account of my dad’s life, I couldn’t just retell the facts; I would be missing the truth.

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The decision to write a novel about my father’s life was, for me, the end of grief. If I could imagine again, if I could invent, the grip of disillusionment had eased. For many months—years, even—I felt not unlike my stepfather the sadist trying to teach a dog a lesson by holding its neck and forcing it to stare at its foulest fact. No reader needs that.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes

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READ THE NOVEL INSPIRED BY THE AUTHOR'S FATHER

If the end of my grief came at an ironic time—the mass disillusionment brought on by a pandemic—that time also gave me Dan Budd. Budd was no illusion. Nor was the work he was doing. Conjuring a help network where none existed before and built by volunteers in record time took countless hours. Budd worked tirelessly. And when that work bore fruit, when it fed people, when it comforted the lonely and united a community, it did more than these considerable achievements. It restored the necessary illusion that even in a time of crisis there was reason to cheer, and men to admire, and an America that might be great again because it was competent and kind. I didn’t meet Dan until recently, after the vaccine arrived. By then, his volunteers had served twenty-five thousand meals and answered ten thousand help requests.

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I have to admit to being reluctant to meet Dan. I didn’t care to bring to an end even one of the illusions I had created about him in eighteen months of collective effort. But that reluctance was unfounded. When we sat down at his café, he was as warm and folksy in person as he was in his emails. He was guileless. He opened his heart. He gave credit to others. He cried. I told him up front that I thought he was a hero. His voice broke when he attributed it to God.

I had put God out of mind on the day my dad died. But for Dan Budd, God got him out of bed on a sleepless night and put him to work. Who was under the greater illusion, me or Budd?

The difference between the man I was the day my dad died and the man I am now is that I’m no longer under the illusion that I’m under no illusions. I just don’t know what they might be. I try my best not to weigh in on them. I want them to live, that’s all, to cast their spell over me, so that I can move around inside them, blithe and happy, like a dreamer.

FromEsquire US

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About The Author
Joshua Ferris
Joshua Ferris is the author of five books, including A Calling for Charlie Barnes, published in September by Little, Brown.
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