You know the game two truths and a lie. You’ve probably played it during an uncomfortable training session as a getting-to-know-you exercise, the most consistent effect of which is to help you identify the most boastful person in the room.
Patrick has travelled to all five continents.
Patrick lives between Paris and New York.
Patrick is best friends with the lead singer of The Strokes.
Patrick should tone it bloody down.
Here’s a version that’s less existentially devastating, and is also the basis of this essay:
Ostriches lay their eggs communally in what is called a “dump nest.”
Ostriches can live to be 75 years old.
Ostriches stick their heads in the sand when faced with danger.
Which one’s the lie?
Give up, or too easy?
I’ll lay my cards on the table: I wrote the statements in the same order as the name of the game describes.
So it’s not true that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid the source of their fear, and really, how could it be? They’d be extinct. You cannot, after all, evade danger by pretending it isn’t there.
Yet we do.
The ostrich with its head underground is such a useful myth we humans use it all the time to describe our own behaviour. It’s so common a fallacy that you’d think we could barely move for all the ostrich torsos standing arse-up all around us. (They’ve actually been hunted with such aggression that their territories have shrunk immensely; now they survive solely in sub-Saharan Africa, zoos the world over, and the odd eccentric farmyard.) We take comfort in the assurance that we are like the ostriches, and so it must be a natural instinct to choose to bury one’s head in the sand, to pretend that the danger does not exist, even when it’s coming ever closer.
But information is everywhere; facts are a Google away. Why does this myth survive? Why are we burying our heads from the truth: that humans are the only species to respond to danger by pretending it’s not there. When things finally, inevitably come to a head—when the fear is on top of us and the outcome inescapable—we shrug mournfully and lie about the ostriches.
Fear and lying are variations of one species.
My family has its ostriches, and I am one of them. I’m a long-time ostrich—a careerist even. Only very recently have I pulled my head out of the sand and begun cleaning up the residual mess of my reckless, ecstatic, willfully headless twenties. I had a great time. But now I am the person I laughed at through the ecstatic haze of amphetamines and liquor and cigarette smoke. I am Future Kate, and she, Past Kate, is my own personal ghost: a phantom of wanton disregard and the source of all yours truly’s major headaches.
I don’t harbour resentment. It was a good time. In my present quiet, fairly ordered and driven life, there’s a very different kind of satisfaction to be gained from overturning every long-ignored stone. Health. Debt. Relationships. I’m down to the last few. They look heavy, and I know their undersides will be unpleasant, but I’m much more able to manage the realities since I stopped being willfully ignorant.
The ostrich on my mind now though is my grandpa, the Clint Eastwood of my real life. Grandpa has been hiding something from all of us that my family has been able to see for a while. Having just conceded to pull his head from the sand and speak to a doctor, he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. But he is happier today, a week since the diagnosis, than he has been in months.
Why would that be so, when he now knows for sure he has a life-threatening disease?
The answer is so obvious on the other side of the doctor’s appointment: It’s because the loneliness and terror of not knowing was far more terrible than any kind of knowing could be. Because with denial comes wild speculation: You do not know, so you imagine, and like all human beings, you imagine the very worst. With your head underground the sand that muffles the threat and blinds you from danger is populated with monsters: infinite terrors that have no basis in the far more mundane world of reality abound, screaming terror at you in the dark. And so long as you stay there you must face them again and again, smothered with sand, and alone.
My family members are excellent mobilizers: when something needs to get done, when it’s time to rally round, they’re kitted up and ready to go in a moment, like a troop on maneuvers. My sister is the most alchemical of all: the family project manager, she must have running lists in her mind at all times: who hasn’t she spoken to in a week, visited in a fortnight, and who’s birthdays are coming up? She’s an untirable source of great friendship, practicality, and familial love, and in my big-sister assessment rarely does she have an ostrich moment.
The NHS isn’t all it’s trashed to be either, so when Grandpa finally confesses to feeling ill and worried, it takes about a week for all tests necessary to be done and a diagnosis is reached. Lung cancer.
And the lines in my grandfather’s face fell away.
Now that we know, the outlook from the family collective is optimistic. It’s a choice, certainly, but a choice based in reason. We have the facts—comfortingly banal in comparison to the infinite fictions of the ostrich mind—and obsessing over the worst-case scenario is simply unproductive. There is only one way for us all to move forward: by accepting proactive medical care by way of a positive mental attitude. There is only one destination: my grandfather’s complete recovery from cancer.
Is this, too, an act of burying our heads in the sand?
Can it be that the solution to the problem of denial is simply adopting a different—granted, a more constructive—form of denial?
What is the difference, besides outcome, between denial and belief?
The thing is that inside I’m quaking.
I am quaking in a way that’s unfamiliar to me, though I have dealt with cancer and other scares in my family for years, including since I began living far away, ten years ago. The women in my family have been hospitalized any number of times—my mother, my grandmother, my aunt. I have taken these visits with varying degrees of calm; I am a woman. I know instinctively that women get sick. I understand that they are mortals. Strong women, like the ones in my family, get sick. They simply get better again, too.
But illness in the men in my family is an impossibility to me.
The first time I saw vulnerability in my dad I was ten-years-old. We were on a ski slope: my dad, my sister, and me. As kids, my sister and I were naturals—fearless, fluid. Dad could barely stand on two skis, even when propped up by a pole in each hand. In our first ever lesson together, Emily and I stood aghast at the sight of our father, falling and struggling and falling again in a mess of long limbs and longer accoutrements. We cried, loudly, embarrassing him so much that he left, urging us quietly and desperately to go on with the lesson without him as he tried to make a dignified exit. I don’t remember him picking up his skis again that whole week. I do remember the earth-shattering realization, mirrored in my younger sister’s face, that our father was above neither error nor harm.
If our dad to us was a strong, infallible man, then our grandfather was Superman, but cooler. I describe him in the same terms in every conversation he comes up in: he’s Clint Eastwood in every movie in which he chews on a cigar atop a horse, dressed in a poncho and the kind of hat that makes you want to try hats again, as he squints at some low-life irritant he’s about to effectually eradicate. But seriously. He was a policeman all his working life. Trained dogs in the drug and bomb-search units for the latter half. He dealt with gruesome scenes and terrorist outfits. He ate raw eggs and nails for breakfast…well, that’s what he said and I believed him. Still kind of do. How else to explain how strong he’s always been. As a kid, I knew I was special simply by the fact of being his kin. My grandpa is a myth unto himself.
If he’s so strong, then why is it him—why is it this cancer in this body—that’s so hard to take? Why is it this illness that makes me feel so small and helpless?
It would seem that in my mind there is a place in which I’m still five. Or three. Or ten. Or all of those at once. It doesn’t make much difference, because at all those ages he was there: a real-live mythical man in my life. Other people’s granddads were diminutive and sweater-vested and walked with a cane. Mine has been funny and handsome and youthful and cool, a man whom my parents’ friends consider a friend, all my life. He has been a man—it has always seemed wordlessly, universally agreed—who cannot be beaten.
That assumption has lived unruffled in my mind all this time—though I had no notion of it until now. Until this news shook up the bottle and brought me from a thirty-something-married-entrepreneur-emigré back to a five-year-old in a Donald Duck t-shirt hell-bent on catching my grandpa cheating at Snap.
Until this news, it was my understanding that we had an adult relationship, formalized, unfortunately, by my having moved great distances from home, but adult and friendly and full of mutual, if sometimes awkward, love and regard. I had no idea that in a timeline lying just slightly to the left of this one we were still pretend-camping in the converted Jeep on his driveway every Sunday, and that this piece of news could cause a disturbance that made the very fabric of time jolt and cross over so that at this moment I feel as though I am six: in the Jeep with the camp beds and the mini kitchen, stacking the plastic plates with strawberry decals amidst the smell of sun and dust on leather bench seats, my grandpa ever a witness, ever a playmate.
I had no idea this vivid past still resided in me.
Just as I had no way of knowing how the quiet confidence of being related to a superman protected me, until it was compromised.
How many ways can one person find their head in the sand?
My checkered progress into adulthood has been a process of losing beliefs which I took entirely for granted, and learning, in the wake of their vanishing, how utterly unprepared I am for the opposite to be true.
My checkered progress into adulthood has been a process of discovering the lies I’ve told myself, and those that others have allowed me to believe, mostly with painful wells of love in their hearts.
Growing up, it would seem, is a mostly involuntary process of unfurling your head from the sand. And realizing that the definition of a blind spot is that you cannot see it coming, because you have no idea it exists.
My grandfather is seventy-five.
My grandfather has lung cancer.
My grandfather is going to live forever.
I have requested the letters I’ve been conveniently able to ignore since moving abroad. I have made an appointment that has been available to me for years but about which I have fabricated fantastical webs of fictions that have kept me from going. I have practiced and practiced asking the questions I least want the answers to.
And in the facing of the things, I have learned over and over again the lesson that every ostrich seems to forget: that pretending something’s not there only makes its influence greater; that almost nothing will be as bad as your imagination can anticipate; that in fact the doing and the knowing are like medicine in itself.
Since I began writing this essay my grandpa has started chemotherapy. Because of his strength and health, they have been treating him with the very strongest dose. So far, he has reported only mild nausea. (Is this the truth of it, or is he downplaying the discomfort for our benefit? It feels like a betrayal of his lofty place to question his motives. Whatever he does is for the best.)
In this way, my grandfather is confirming what we all want to believe of him: that he is the strongest man we know. That this disease, which we now know is inoperable, will not defeat him. And the deceit in the secret deep parts of all our minds that, contrary to all scientific evidence, he will live forever.
So far, it is working. So far, we are kept afloat.
Just as my grandfather’s face has smoothed since his diagnosis, so mine relaxes a twitch or two with each determinedly forgotten item brought from the bottom of my ostrich hole back to light.
Now, as I scrabble at the for the final unpalatable items, I realize that far from returning to that carefree life I once enjoyed, in whittling down the list of Things I Ignored Aged 18–29 I must face up to yet another myth I’ve been believing: that once this list is completed, there’ll be no more sticking my head in the sand.
And what will happen when I tick that final item off my list? How will I feel, not when it is resolved—it’s not so simple as that, or I would not have buried my head in the sand about it—but when it is addressed? When I have opened the envelope, read the letter, responded in calm, rational, constructive kind, and plotted the course ahead?
How will I feel?
I have spent all my life with my head in the sand about something. The likelihood is that I’ll bury it back there again before too long.
What is there to do in the meantime but be reminded that up here there is clean air, sun, the potential of a view?
What is the difference between denial and belief?