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The Value of a Compassionate Lie

A poignant reminder that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is the greatest art of all.

“Anybody who travels knows,” Pico Iyer observed in his altogether marvelous On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, “that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved.” Few have captured this aspect of travel as a mode of intimacy with oneself more enchantingly than writer and documentary photographer Michael Katakis in The Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile (public library) — a slim, absolutely magnificent collection of journal entries, which I picked up on the recommendation of voracious reader and traveler extraordinaire Karen Barbarossa, chronicling twenty-five years of Katakis mapping his inner world as he traverses the outer.

Although every page emanates enormous wisdom, one particular diary entry stopped my breath with how swiftly it sliced through my most fundamental convictions as a person who despises deception and prizes truth above almost all moral goods. And yet here was Katakis, reminding me in an incredibly poignant and beautiful way that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is perhaps the greatest art and most difficult moral feat of all.

Women husking in Sierra Leone (Photograph: Michael Katakis)

Writing from Sierra Leone in July of 1988 — a time of growing violence and unrest, shortly before the country erupted into its decade-long Civil War — Katakis describes an encounter with a most unexpected visitor, which taught him a most unexpected and invaluable truth:

On the veranda sat a small nicely dressed man in his twenties I’d guessed. He rose to greet me with an extended hand and held a large box in the other. He seemed familiar and at first did not speak.

After establishing that they had met some time ago in another city, the young man grows increasingly nervous and agitated, eventually blurting out that he has come to ask questions. Katakis recounts:

With that he set the large box on the table opening it carefully so as not to further stress the already broken spine. The contents, which he began to, and there is no other word for it, tenderly remove, were drawings and charts of the stars as well as old and yellowed newspaper clippings with stories about the American space program. There were stories about Mercury, Apollo and the names of some astronauts including John Glenn which were circled in red. The young man’s hand drawings of Saturn and Mars were remarkable and on some of the pages there were a series of equations that I took to mean latitude and longitude but could not be sure. He went on turning page after page. In another place and time he would have been a student or perhaps a professor of astronomy I thought. His passion for the subject was startling…

I told him that this was fantastic but my compliment was either ignored or not heard as he arranged more pages on the table. He then asked me his questions. They were about propulsion systems and temperatures on planets. Questions about Haley’s comet and other astronauts’ names and how the space program had developed after he had lost track. How far was the end of the galaxy and how long would it take to reach it and then questions about the theory of relativity. I was dumbfounded and could only manage a silly, insecure smile in response, and then, I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life. I told the truth. I said, “You have studied this so much and it’s amazing but I’m afraid that you know much more about this than I do. I am learning from you and I can’t answer your questions. I simply don’t know.”

Early drawings of Saturn by pioneering astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, from ‘Cosmigraphics.’ Click image for more.

A quarter century after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead made her elegant distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” Katakis — whose wife, Kris Hardin, was also an influential anthropologist — illustrates Mead’s point with silken sensitivity to the invisible dimensions of the human spirit:

The look on his face cut deep and in an instant I realized that he had not come for facts at all. He had come for new words to dream by. Perhaps my words would have carried him until August or September and maybe well past. He might have lay in the tall grass at night staring at the stars remembering the veranda where we had talked and ponder what was said. Perhaps he would have fallen into deep sleeps and dreamt of stars and in those dreams he might have taken flight far from his life of questions with no answers and loneliness. But that was not to be for I made the terrible mistake of admitting my ignorance and removing myself from our delicate charade.

I learned in that moment, when I took everything from him, the importance of lying, not merely telling an untruth but lying, with passion and flourish like an actor on a stage claiming to know that which they do not know, for the lie that keeps hope and dreams intact is preferable to a truth that removes them. Lies and truths are easy to come by but dreams that sustain people through difficult lives are not. I wish I could take back the day.

The Traveller is full of dreamsome sustenance from cover to cover. Complement this particular piece of nourishment with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

Published June 5, 2015




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