A poignant reminder that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is the greatest art of all.
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.”
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.
A lyrical reminder to break the momentum of busyness that fuels “the sadness of never understanding ourselves.”
By Maria Popova
“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet…” So begins Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet,” tucked into which is tremendous sagacity on how to be a good human being. “The impulse to create begins… in a tunnel of silence,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her tremendous lecture on art and freedom. “Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”
No poet breaks the silence with silence, nor slices through its vitalizing, clarifying, and transcendent power, with more piercing elegance than Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) in a poem titled “Keeping Quiet,” written in the 1950s and posthumously published in the 1974 bilingual collection Extravagaria (public library), translated by Alastair Reid.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
A short playlist of intellectual, creative, and spiritual invigoration.
By Maria Popova
We are storytelling animals and the actual telling of stories — that ancient aural mesmerism of the human voice — continues to bewitch us somehow more thoroughly than any other medium of tale-transmission. This, perhaps, is why podcasts have emerged as a storytelling modality capable of particular enchantment — a marriage of the primeval and the present.
Here are nine favorite exemplars of the medium, each showcased via one particularly spectacular episode and a sampler-playlist of three more treats from the show’s archives.
From poetry to 911 calls, WNYC’s Jad and Robert embark upon a characteristically mind-bending exploration of how close words can get us “to the truth and feel and force of life” and how far they can lead us stray from the actual meaning of things.
Any person is kind of a universe — they’re too big to comprehend in their entirety, and so any translation [of a person’s work] is only going to get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny fraction.
The celebrated novelist, memoirist, and author of the superb Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life discusses the experience of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, her ongoing quest to master the art of presence, and the interplay of courage and vulnerability necessary for being an artist.
When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.
In a wide-ranging and wildly inspiring conversation, Amanda Palmer expands on her ideas from the indispensable The Art of Asking as she contemplates creativity, sanity, integrity, and what it means to be an artist.
Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success — which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day.
Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid — swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out.
From psychologists’ multiple theories about why a young man found his mind suddenly flooded with horribly violent images to how someone trapped in his body for thirteen years found true love, co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the seemingly simple yet life-shaping question: “Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?”
The world of therapists and how they think about thoughts … is in the middle of a huge revolution. And it’s one I don’t know if most people know about.
In another stimulating installment of this ongoing collaboration between TED and NPR, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, musician Sting, brain researcher Charles Limb, and education reform champion Sir Ken Robinson explore the origin of creativity from multiple perspectives.
I had a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was 6, and she was in the back, drawing. The teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. In this drawing lesson, she did. And the teacher was fascinated.
She went over to her, and she said, what are you drawing?
And the girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God.
And the teacher said that nobody knows what God looks like, and the girl said, “They will in a minute.”
Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go… They’re not frightened of being wrong… If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.
There are a lot of goals that we cannot pursue directly: relaxation, happiness, attractiveness [and] creativity — when you pursue them directly, they flee from you… If you think about the two-system nature of the human mind, when you’re trying to relax, or you’re trying to be happy and not think about things, the part of the brain you’re trying to shut down is the part you’re using to do the shutting down. It’s like trying to dissemble a bicycle while you’re riding on it — it’s directly paradoxical.
The celebrated author and New Yorker contributor discusses, among myriad other insightful and fascinating things, how evolving as a writer is about bridging the gap between one’s values as a person and the values one’s writing espouses.
Maybe you would understand your artistry to be: Put me anywhere, I’ll find human beings; I’ll find human interest; I’ll find literature. And I guess you could argue the weirder — or maybe the less explored — the place, the better.
The Pulitzer-winning poet, MacArthur genius, and sage of creativity on the artistic imagination, shortly before his death. That Strand’s final interview should be a conversation with his daughter, the New York Public Library’s own Jessica Strand, only adds to the beauty and poignancy of that conversation.
I can’t imagine a life without books — without reading. I don’t know how people get through a day without reading!
I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?
Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it.
Clarifying that by “God” he means the personal deity typical of Western religions, “to whom you pray and who has something to do with creating the universe and guiding you in morals,” Feynman considers the key difficulties in reconciling the scientific worldview with the religious one. Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion:
It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.
It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can — and that is what we should do.
Befriending uncertainty, Feynman argues, becomes a habit of mind that automates thought to a point of no longer being able to retreat from doubt’s inquiry. The question then changes from the binary “Is there God?” to the degrees-of-certainty ponderation “How sure is it that there is a God?” He writes:
This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do… I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view — that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute certainty which religious people have.
A believing scientist, then, is one from whom the degree of certainty outweighs but doesn’t displace the degree of doubt — in the scientist, unlike in the religious person, doubt remains a parallel presence with any element of faith. Feynman illustrates this sliding scale of uncertainty by putting our human existence in cosmic perspective:
The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies… Man is a latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding for his creation?
Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff, but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive — like man himself.
It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.
But even if one comes to doubt the factuality of divinity itself, Feynman argues that religious myths remain a valuable moral compass, the basic ethical tenets of which can be applied to life independently of the religious dogma:
In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well in society.
Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of atheism particularly insightful:
The communist views are the antithesis of the scientific, in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the questions — political questions as well as moral ones — without discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed; we must argue everything out — observe things, check them, and so change them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn’t launch the ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very decisively, and it looks good — for a while. But soon the ship is heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction anymore. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much more consistent with science.
He revisits the ethical aspect of religion — its commitment to guiding us toward a more moral life — and its interplay with our human fallibility:
We know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct — it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.
Noting that all three aspects of religion — metaphysical divinity, morality, and inspiration — are interconnected and that “to attack one feature of the system is to attack the whole structure,” Feynman zeroes in on the inescapable conflict between the empirical findings of science and the metaphysical myths of faith:
The result … is a retreat of the religious metaphysical view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the moral view.
After all, the earth moves around the sun — isn’t it best to turn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the sun?
In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.
On the other hand, I don’t believe that a real conflict with science will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions are outside of the scientific realm.
The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?
Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question — any question, philosophical or other — which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment … is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.
I claim that whether you want something to happen or not — what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?), must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens — in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view — or the ethical aspect of religion — and scientific information.
But therein lies the central friction — because of the interconnectedness of all three parts of religion, doubt about the metaphysical aspect invariably chips away at the authority of the moral and inspirational aspects, which are fueled by the believer’s emotional investment in the divine component. Feynman writes:
Emotional ties to the moral code … begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.
He concludes, appropriately, like a scientist rather than a dogmatist — by framing the right questions rather than asserting the right answers:
I don’t know the answer to this central problem — the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most [people], while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.
Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure–the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.
These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?