Happiness or Truth? - One Earnest Temptation

Shannon Wardell
Happiness or Truth? - One Earnest Temptation
“Which do you prefer, Happiness or Truth?”

Oscar drew two circles in the cool, dusky air with the thick temple of his horn-rims. Leaning on his left elbow over the glass terrace table, his quizzical smile slightly gleamed in the darkening courtyard of Brooklyn brownstones. “You’re nodding asleep already and it's not even 9:00. All that yoga wellness before the muesli breakfast spells nothing but ruin for any decent fun-loving aesthete. Ok, because you are such a close pal of mine I’ll keep you awake for another half hour with one riveting answer to this meta-question from an acquaintance of mine who is now serving 120 years in the pen for 9 felony counts, including securities fraud, money laundering and perjury. It's one of those outrageously unbelievable anecdotes through which reality demonstrates who the true master storyteller is - the one who has no need to fall back upon fiction. ”

He was right about my drowsiness; over the last year I had really grown fond of - if not obsessed with - my early morning routine of stretching and meditation. On days when I couldn’t fit it in, I felt uptight and frustrated, even aggressive. My morning routine even kept me balanced during a series of crises that this past year had delivered. On the other hand, by evening I am so tired that I have turned into a fairly boring host.

“This guy’s story - let's call him Jeff - is just as juicy as any other, but it never made front page because it leaked after Bernie Madoff and some of the big names who had also been hit by Madoff were able to sandbox it before their names could be blackened again.

"Jeff told me his side of the scandal shortly after Bernie Madoff gave his first telephone interview with Steve Fishman from the NY Times; I think he was inspired by Madoff's show of candor, yet at the same time repulsed by Madoff's blatant squeal of self-pity. Jeff thought that he could show Madoff up at least in that, even though his story is very similar to Madoff’s at times. He called me the first time last month and since then we have talked an average of two and a half hours twice a week. He had a lot to say.

"Some of the conversations I remember by heart and I only wish I could copy his Brooklyn accent better: 'So here I was making at one point over $100 million a year. You know, I always had a good feel for where the market was going because of the order flow I was seeing each day. I made buckets of money for alot of people, and turned many normal folks into millionaires, and even a few millionaires into billionaires. But after America lost all its political capital from 9/11 in Iraq, the market turned drowsy.

'Nobody could bring in double digits, but I still had a great reputation. All of a sudden, these high rollers and Swiss banks wanted to give me billions of dollars. Imagine meeting these tremendously rich people, who before had never even wanted to shake my hand, and then they start telling you, ‘You can do this. Listen, if you can get us 15%, you'll be our main man for life.’

'This temptation I just could not say no to. So I took the money. It fed my ego. It’s not like I needed the money. I thought it was just a temporary thing at the time. While I waited for the market to wake up, I parked their billions in treasuries earning 2 percent a year, while generating statements that maintained they were earning about 15 percent—a fantastic return in such a slow market. But the market stayed bearish and I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I couldn't do it. I was too afraid to have people call me a failure.

'But I am not the only one to blame here. Look, those banks and fund managers had to know something not quite kosher was up. I told them absolutely nothing about how I made those returns. I wouldn’t give them any facts at all, not even about volume or specific investments. I absolutely refused to do it. I said, ‘You don’t like it, take your money out,’ which of course they never did because everyone understood the terms of our friendship: They liked me because I made them money. Everyone was greedy. It’s not an excuse; it's just the nature of the beast, it's how you play the game and win.

'I'm no evil mastermind, just a part in a system of corruption. Maybe I was a linchpin for a while, but now I'm being turned into the dipstick. People have lost their perspective on what actually occurred. The SEC looks ridiculous. I’m not the only guilty party on Wall Street. The whole new regulatory reform is a joke. The whole government is a Ponzi scheme.

'Now what happened to Bernie I wouldn't wish even to my worst enemy. You bet, bankrupt him, jail him, ruin his reputation, make him do community work in the Bronx, but to have his entire family irreparably ruined is pushing the boundaries of poetic justice. I know he bankrupt a lot of charities, NPO's and retirement funds and some people still say that he got just what he deserved, but his son's suicide cuts deep, too deep. Nevertheless, I can understand what was going through Mark's head; he was thinking: 'Here’s my loving father, whom I loved and who stole my money, destroyed my life and reputation with criminal inquiry and turned all my assets into a chaotic mess. And on top of that, I have to live with the fact that I sent him to jail.'

"His other son took the next step: if the old goat had lied so much about business, what else had he lied about? Had he lied about his love for his sons? Was that all show as well? He couldn’t get that out of his mind. He kept thinking, ‘Who knows what’s true and what’s not?’ And even if Bernie could cut through the layers of semblance and clearly perceive the truth of his own emotions and intentions, is there anyone, besides his dutiful wife, who now will believe any word he has to say?'

"It was at this point that I asked Jeff that same question: which did he prefer, Truth or Happiness? 'Definitely Truth,' he blurted out, 'because knowledge is the only power that sustainably wins. That is what I believed until last month,' he qualified, 'when a crisis situation made me reconsider the standards by which I had until then employed to navigate through tricky situations in life.'

"Jeff had taken off with his wife for a week of R&R at a luxury resort near Aspen. The month long, ceaseless stress of sustaining all of the half-truths, outright lies and millions of dollars of approaching personal debt had begun to take their toll, physically and emotionally. His wife knew nothing of his wheeling and dealing, but felt the pressure that he was under. The first few days he could not clear his head of business, accessed email continually, until his wife threatened to leave. He stopped, but his duplicity continued: trying to convince a masseuse into giving him a special "Happy End" prostate massage. He was denied, became frustrated, brooded in the sauna until a middle-aged beauty queen entered. The conversation turned flirtatious. He tried to arrange a rendezvous for the afternoon when he had scheduled a 4 ½ hour beauty treatment for his wife. She was interested, but her husband had already planned a mountain bike tour for them. Perhaps tomorrow? She agreed to meet him again in the sauna the next morning to discuss the possibility. He celebrated with several glasses of merlot.

"Later, in the evening before dinner, his wife noticed that he had been drinking and questioned his preoccupation. He claimed that his business affairs still continued to consume his thoughts, but he would clear them out of his head so as to be present with her.

"Over dinner, he happened to be able to see his sauna-friend across the room. He watched her constantly, but did not let his wife notice, and speculated about what her husband did, how much he earned, how they lived, etc. Afterwards, back in their room, his wife revealed that she had noticed everything and wanted to know what exactly was between him and that woman. He tried to downplay the situation, but her intuition saw through his act. Before their spat exploded, she reminded him that a divorce would set her up comfortably for life, but would make her cynical and diva-indulgent. She would prefer that they could discover again the bond between them that she had missed in recent years. He should sleep on it and tell her over breakfast. It depended upon if he could be honest with her and with himself. She turned away in bed.

"Then began a long inner monologue with him contemplating his own life, his marriage, his goals, as well as the next morning's rendezvous. He knew that he was leading a life of deception, one similar to those Chinese boxes skillfully made with hidden boxes tucked away behind secret panels. He opened some boxes to some people, yet there were boxes inside of him with secrets that no one had ever looked into, and now here was his wife wanting him to show her everything. And she would know if he were holding something back. She might not know what it was exactly, but she would feel that he was holding something back and that would be enough to send her packing.

"He realized that he was so used to telling half-truths and white lies that the idea of actually coming clean and telling all made him uneasy, if not somewhat anxious. He remembered the recent scandal of Father Donovan who had lived the straight and narrow his entire life until last spring when temptation got the better of him and he was caught in the vestry with an altar boy and a bottle of Deacon's Best Red. But how long had those desires been going through Father Donovan's head? Had he been doing it for years without getting caught? Jeff realized that he been living nearly his whole life following every temptation that came his way. Why, there were no 'temptations' for him in the sense of deviation from the 'right' way. It was then that he fully appreciated the unusual ‘temptation’ that his wife had proposed: the temptation to fully speak and act honestly for once with her.

"The next morning, he woke up to see the morning light spilling in the room, falling gently across the still sleeping profile of his wife. He felt a sense of renewed vigour, an earnest desire to clean up the mess he had made in his life and marriage. He gently caressed her shoulder as she slowly woke, turned to him and smiled. He told her that he had made a decision to be fully honest with her about everything. She was the most important person in his life and he was determined to fulfill her every wish. He proceeded to tell her about his precarious business situation, how he was only a few weeks away from total insolvency and a possible criminal sentence. She listened with attentive wonder and compassion. They experienced a moment of full, naked intimacy like none other they had shared since their initial years of infatuation years ago.

"They showered and left the room, arm in arm, heading leisurely for breakfast. At the sumptuous buffet, his wife lingered over the mueslis while he spent some minutes of indecision in front of a table filled with various sliced hams. Suddenly, at his side he noticed his sauna acquaintance who smiled provocatively saying, 'I'm looking forward to our sauna therapy later.' Before he could tell her that it would not work out, she walked away curvaceously. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply, opened his eyes to see his wife beside him with a look on her face that clearly said she had heard everything.

"His wife never returned to their table. By the time he had returned to their room, she and her suitcase were gone. On the bedside was a note that read: 'I thought that the truth would make us happy again, but this truth has made me only happy to leave. My lawyer will call.'

"Jeff spent a day in medicated oblivion, then flew back home to find a court summons in his mailbox. Three months later, he was checked into the state pen. That was a month ago.

"This was the crisis that served to make Jeff reconsider his answer: 'Which do I prefer, Happiness or Truth? If you were to find out the Truth about everything and everyone, you would turn into a miserable, cynical troll. Happiness may be delusional, but even this happiness, like ignorance, I can live with as long as it is blissful.'"

The evening's dusky shadows had left Oscar's voice suspended in the air with my thoughts flying animatedly like a silent swarm of bats. Yet something did not seem quite right.

"Oscar, why do you have to choose between one or the other? I want to believe that Happiness and Truth are not mutually exclusive. And Truth with a capital T is not really the same thing as all these particular truths that Jeff was talking about."

"I agree. But that is the curious thing about the question. Some people just accept the wording of the question as a given and do not question the premise of mutual exclusion that it suggests. Others do, and this divergent thinking says just as much about their perspective about life as any answer. One of the most remarkable replies that I have ever heard came from an older lady while I was painting her portrait.

"Painting someone's portrait can be revelatory. After the first 10 minutes or so, the sitter always begins to get bored; the facial features begin to droop and their concentration flags. After I have outlined their particular proportions, I like to then ask them some questions that can reanimate them. This is one question that works very well and usually I can catch a glimpse of their naked souls rising out through their facial features as they reflect upon it. This is one of the most glorious moments in portraiture and the artist who can catch this fleeting moment can only be grateful for having had the privilege to do so.

"This lady, a widow and grandmother who had seen a great deal of life's sufferings and joys without losing her esprit, uttered a sentence that I will never forget. She had nearly fallen asleep, baggy eyes, wrinkled mouth and all, when I gently mentioned that I had a question for her. After hearing this question, she awakened fully with the radiant beauty of a debutant queen, eyes shining as she looked past me into her own world. Slowly, her eyes turned towards me focusing as she smiled and said, 'My dear young man, I wonder if you are aware of the temptations which that question offers if one follows it through diligently. After all, true Happiness can endure the Truth.'

"I like to think about Jeff, the revelation that he had experienced up on the mountain, his own personal temptation that so ironically led to his fall. Last time we spoke, I mentioned the answer that this lady had given. He laughed, then said, 'You mean I should be able to appreciate all those delicious poetic ironies in my story that you keep telling me about. Yeah, it's great stuff, a real Broadway blockbuster. Tell you what, you go ahead and write it up, sell it high – then make us both really happy by sending me 15 % of the gross profits.'"

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