I've just come off one of the most harrowing and oddly rewarding weeks of my life, and I've discovered something surprising.
People are more important than truth.
In a certain sense, anyway.
My seven brothers and sisters and I have been taking turns helping my father care for my mother and her ever-worsening Alzheimer's. Personal contact with her has opened my eyes, but I've also been reading up on the disease. I was raised (by her) to believe that if you have a problem, then obviously you read--or possibly write--a book about it. I've devoured books on how to teach a child to swim, how to play the recorder, and plenty of other subjects to which a normal person would take a more hands-on approach.
One piece of advice that struck me was this: If an Alzheimer's patient asks after someone who's died, you don't say, "He's dead." This author made an exception: if the person asks you straight out, "Is Uncle Joe dead?" you shouldn't lie. But evading the issue is OK. When my mother asked me the other day, "Should I go get my parents?" I just answered, "No, that's OK," and when she called out, "Dad?" I replied, with misleading accuracy, "He's not here right now."
Do I have qualms of conscience about these violations of truth? Not in the least.
There are other conversational techniques I've fallen into which are not exactly lies, but certainly don't correspond to reality the way words are normally supposed to. If my mother asks me, "Should I put the shibboleth on the counter?" I'll answer, "No, we don't need to right now." (I did make up that particular sentence, but it's very typical of my mother's remarks these days. She still has the vocabulary of an excellent writer.) When she laments, "I just need to find someplace to park my lizard," (this one is verbatim) I reply, "Maybe I can help you find a spot."
On the other hand, sometimes she's disconcertingly literal. When my brother Joseph told her the other day, "I'm doing everything I can!", he says she replied, aghast, "Oh, not in here, I hope!"
So this is a pretty loose relationship with the truth for me, someone who's taken entire courses on epistemology, who's analyzed to death the correspondence theory and the consensus theory of truth, and all the rest. And who subscribes to a pretty literal reading of "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
But Truth, it turns out, is not just about factual accuracy, and my departure from that accuracy, even my total disregard for it, is not in the service of evading the truth. Instead, it's about striving to connect, somehow, even the tiniest bit, with the truth of my mother. I've always thought "walking in the truth" meant performing good and honest actions--not just talking the talk--but maybe it means this, too. Words don't work as vehicles anymore, but they can serve as clues. And even when they can't, the truth about who my mother is something I can connect with despite the uselessness of words.
The only reason I can ever make some sense of the things my mother says these days is because I've known HER so long and so well. This means not merely that I can use her words to piece together what she's really trying to say--sometimes I can't--but that I can make contact with, be present to, the reality of my mother as a person, with or without the help (or hinderance) of words. It's not a question of factual accuracy at all, but of something deeper--that is, something personal.
The person really is a deeper reality than the correspondence of words with things. Concern for accuracy divorced from personal subjects who walk in the truth is a superficial, abstract, and even insignificant thing. And whatever it means, exactly, that God "is" Truth, it means something deeper than word-thing correspondence--unless, maybe, we also take "Word" in its full, mysterious, Biblical meaning.
Does this make any sense? As the uneasily aging daughter and granddaughter of women who've succumbed to this awful sickness, I don't always trust my own brain these days. Still, when my mother handed me a napkin yesterday and said, "Here, maybe you can look at it and get some wisdom," I answered without hesitation: "OK, I'll try!"