Yesterday I posted about my recent shift in spiritual and religious certainty. While the point for both of us may have been that spiritual transformation, the notion about the value of certainty is the point that I think may be a little more generalizable, more applicable to more situations. And it all got me to thinking about certainty in general.
Because we love us some certainty, don’t we?
Culturally we prize it. We claim it. We use data to back it up. We argue with charts and graphs. We gather all of the information that feeds our certainty and share it with other equally certain people so we can all be more certain, and feel justified in that, together. Yay for being sure and being right!
It’s not just our culture, though. It seems to me that humans are wired to seek certainty. In certainty there is safety. In predictability there is survival. In knowing what is and what will happen we are assured of our own ability to make reasonably good choices. Our brains love certainty. Being certain about things lets the brain turn that puzzle into one that has been solved and can now become part of the efficient, programmed background knowledge. It becomes something we no longer have to think about.
And there it is; the long-awaited and foreshadowed rub.
The problem with moving things to the efficiency drawer is that change DOES happen. The world around us changes. Even if nothing else happens, there are seasons. Even if we don’t attempt to make any shifts at all, a single butterfly may flap its wings in just such a way that the direction of a tornado is impacted weeks later (that’s the butterfly effect, not just a movie but a part of chaos theory and grounded in math). No matter how little we as individuals TRY to change, we still do.
Our bodies age. Our experiences impact us daily and cumulatively over time. Our incredibly powerful brains won’t stop learning no matter how much we attempt to dull them. Change will happen. For us to remain certain of so many things in the face of what we have to acknowledge as the inevitability of change feels unnecessarily stubborn at best and foolish and destructive at worst.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk by Arthur C. Brooks, an economist and the current head of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think-tank that I don’t usually look to for inspiration – as a demonstration of my own certainty…). The name of Mr. Brooks’ talk was: “Work, Life, and Happiness After 50.” It was a phenomenal talk. I’ll have more to say about it later, I’m sure, but there was a point he made that feels particularly relevant to this whole notion of certainty and change.
He quoted a Dylan Thomas poem that many of us have heard before: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. You know the one, it has the line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yeah, that one. And I think there are a couple of ways you could take that advice. The poem is clearly about aging, and we could simply take it as a prompt to continue to live and live fully, hard, with vigor even as we age. But Brooks talked about this idea of raging as a way of fighting with change: the changes in our bodies, the changes in our understandings, the changes in our world. The problem, Brooks suggested, with all of this raging is that it keeps us from ever getting to progress.
In other words, screaming about our certainty and defending it until we are bloody may be preventing us from fully appreciating the contours of any problem and moving to the point of progress. Whew. That’s a big one. I know it.
And I know it. And here’s where it becomes spiritual for me again, but it’s just an example, so you can sub out anything you like. In the aftermath of a cavalcade of losses, I was certain about my loss of faith in just about everything that might keep a person feeling steady.
As wounds from those losses began to heal, and I began to change, instead of re-examining that certainty, I dug in. I became entrenched. And I raged. I raged against threats to my certainty. I congratulated myself on the intellectual achievement that was my certainty. I gathered evidence to support that certainty and I scorned, well, lots of things. Raged.
And all because I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to question those beliefs. I didn’t want see things in a different way. I didn’t want to experience whatever impact all of that learning, rethinking, shifting might have. Rage.
And yet, all of that raging made me fail to see so much: so much beauty, so much tenderness, and so many people. All of that certainty kept me from experiencing the world as it really is – for all that it is: good and bad.
Let me just say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having beliefs, which is great because we’re going to have them. It’s part of how the brain works. So is certainty. The question is when certainty becomes toxic. And I think the answer to that question lies in the discovery I made in my own theological unraveling.
When your certainty keeps you from experiencing the world (which includes yourself, you, all of your bits and feelings by the way) as it really is, that certainty has become toxic. When your certainty keeps you from seeing people as more than a point of opposition, when it keeps you from seeing the complexity of a situation, when it only lets in all of the good or all of the bad, it’s become toxic and it is keeping you from progress.
It is good to know some things for sure. This is why Oprah’s phrase “what I know for sure” has caught on with so many people. It feels good to be able to identify those things, those touch points, those steady rocks in the storm. It is wise to also know when to give them a second look. Sometimes all of that certainty is just raging against change. And sometimes that change really will make things better.