THE ELDERLY WOMAN was bent over, not so much by age as by the weight of an enormous pile of books stacked between her arms.
"Whew!" she said to me, heaving the books onto the counter at the library where I work. She brushed back a silvery wisp of hair from her forehead. "I'll be right back." And without another word she toddled back around to fetch a few books more.
Boy, she must love to read, I thought. Pulling the books toward me, I glanced at the titles. Romances, every one of them. Passion for Pam. Island Woman. The Splendor of Love. These were the tacky ones the library didn't even bother to catalog. Gypsy Love. Campus Romp. And the covers my grandmother would have taped brown paper bags over them and treated them to the trash can. I looked up to see this grandma toting another load my way.
What could she possibly get out of such books? I pictured her snuggled in her rocking chair, afghan tucked over her shoulders, rocking gently to and fro as she read about the amorous adventures of twenty-year-olds. Did her grandchildren know she was reading this stuff? After a lifetime of experience, of triumphs and sorrows, of seeing birth and now facing death, what could she possibly be gleaning from the romance of Sandy and Joe?
People in our library on a typical day check out four times more fiction than nonfiction. For three hundred pages a withered old lady may flirt about as a reckless young lover, then close the book and fetch her husband's arthritis medicine.
Madness? Not at all we all do it. As psychologist Shelley E. Taylor writes in her book Positive Illusions, "In many ways, the healthy mind is a self-deceptive one."
Mentally healthy people, she says, enhance their self-esteem by creating flattering illusions about themselves; people who can't do it suffer an overdose of reality.
"Depressed people clearly lack the illusions that in normal people promote mental health and buffer them against setbacks," she writes. "In addition, there is now considerable evidence that depression is marked not by unrealistic pessimism but by depressive realism and the absence of illusion."
Quite a concept. Ignore the sagging flesh, the grey hair, ignore the old man snoring on the couch. Why feel bad about missing opportunities? Just imagine them. Pick up a book, if you like, and you can be there in full blush, pulse racing.
Taylor says people are more successful in their real-life undertakings when they believe, falsely or not, that they are capable of greater things. A man who sees himself as a hero, for example, is more likely to perform heroic deeds.
It makes sense: gather confidence from the illusory image, then apply it to the real world. A harmless trick, it seems, or at least preferable to dreaming up dark, discouraging illusions. As Sigmund Freud noted, "To endure life is the primary duty of all living beings. Illusion is of no value if it makes this more difficult."
But even when illusion makes things easy, how much value can it have? Positive thinking may possibly help us stave off old age. But no illusion, however well cultivated, can free us from death. And when we close our eyes to what our body is eventually coming to, we lose sight of a natural reason to become philosophical.
Pain can serve a purpose, other than to depress us. In disappointment we can turn toward the spiritual. Rather than add another coat of fiction, we can peel away the layers of falsehood and look for the essence at the core of our existence.
But instead of getting ready to face disease and death, we hide from them, and they become more terrifying.
I think of that little grandmother devouring her romances, and it saddens me to know she will soon be back for more.