The Toxicity of Certainty

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.

balance-business-calculator-163032Because 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.

adult-angry-facial-expression-206460As 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.

Free Floating Feels… Nice

Things have been shifting for me for a while now.

So much has changed.

On the one hand are all of the external changes we’ve made. I’ve gotten a new career. My husband (also referred to as my seminarian) left his IT career to go to… yes, seminary. There have been other external, sort of tangible changes, but the truth is that the biggest shifts have been entirely internal, shifts in world-view, shifts in self-view, and perhaps most unexpectedly, shifts in God-view.

I think I’ve mentioned here before that my relationship with the almighty, God, Spirit, the Universe, the All-One, whatever you want to call it (because they’re all just words for the same thing for me, but we can argue about that later) has been tumultuous in the past and I ended that roller coaster ride with an ugly and protracted break-up that I think became (or so I thought) final in about 2001.

argument-bench-breakup-984953I can say more about all of that, and the factors that went into my divorce from spirit, but that’s not today’s tale. Today’s tale is more about certainty and uncertainty.

During my breakup with God I started putting things into buckets. One of my clients talks about this too: the good people bucket and the bad people bucket. She realizes that there, at the very least, needs to be a more ambiguous bucket, and that further the buckets are problematic to begin with. My labels were different, but I had buckets of my own and the labels for them were no less black and white.

My rejection of faith was so complete that I put people of faith in their own bucket (not my bucket) and I ascribed characteristics to them that were, even on a good day, uncharitable. It was all part of distancing myself from my own faith, but that’s not all it did. And in order to maintain my own clarity about my beliefs, I became adamant. Clarity was important in a way that, at least during that time, huge groups of people were not.

I was adamant that there was no entity outside of what we can touch and experience with our concrete-loving senses. I was certain that all of the theology that went with the belief in such a being was equally deluded. And, just to be extra nice, I figured that in order to buy all of that claptrap, you’d have to not be using that God-given (ha) grey matter very well. I was certain. I was adamant.

And in my certainty I made my world pretty small. There were songs that were uncomfortable to sing. There were thinkers I didn’t want to listen to. There were stories that didn’t interest me. There were specific sets of myths I didn’t want to share with my children. There were ideas I didn’t even want to consider. There were people who would be hard pressed to get further than the front gate of polite conversation. I did a whole lot of filtering and rejecting.

Riding that intense certainty was kind of like being on a raft in the ocean (one of those old rubber blow up jobs), floating above everything. And sure, that’s nice. You can bob along, taking in the sights, dipping your toes and fingers into the water to cool off, if you’re really good you may even manage to ride a wave in a little ways. You’ll stay mostly dry and you’ll have a little fun, but you miss out on SO much, and you still run the risk of getting wiped out by a really big wave.

My certainty kept me from so experiences that could enrich my life, made me uncomfortable rather than curious when presented with songs, stories, or ideas that fell outside of my rules for believing. It kept me safer, up on the raft, but I never got to get all of the way in the water and see what it feels like, the coolness up against my skin, the shells on the ocean floor, the little slaps of the wave against my skin, the rush of the decision to dive under or over or bodysurf a wave in.

In the past several months (year?), my certainty has left me. More recently I have left it. There is no grand declaration of faith coming here. I really don’t know what I believe. THAT’s the declaration. And opening that door, leaving room for uncertainty has let in a flood of possibilities that have enriched me so thoroughly I’m dumbstruck.

beach-blue-feet-37921I’ve encountered people, ideas, music, books, poems that I would have rejected wholesale before with a range of emotions from curiosity to delight.

I’ve played with my own ideas, turning them over, testing them out: “What would it feel like to actually believe in a benevolent God?” and feeling the peace, the comfort, and the support that that very idea has held for countless people for so very long.

I think there are a lot of folks who would probably like me to get more specific, to define the terms of my conversion. But I’m not interested in that.

I’m interested in the uncertainty. I’m interested in the ideas. I’m interested in the experiences, and I’m especially interested in how letting go of my own certainty has changed the contours of my days.

I think there is a God, or something that fits under that general idea, and I think that she must be very, very patient. And for that I am grateful.

Trust as Your Anchor

In a prayer I read the other day, I came across this simple request: “Let my soul be anchored in trust.”

bare-feet-boy-child-262103I struggle with that idea.

I struggle to trust.

I struggle to feel safe being myself, taking risks.

I struggle to feel secure with who I am and who I might become.

My mind tells me if I work hard enough and protect myself and my family then I don’t have to trust, which is probably best because oh my mercy have you seen what’s going on out there?!

And I know there are people who would tell me that this lack of trust is not a problem, but wisdom, a sign of maturity in a hard world, lessons learned. There is surely plenty of evidence in the world that not everyone or everything is trustworthy. Hell, there is surely plenty of evidence in my Facebook feed alone that not everyone or everything, or some days it seems like ANYone or ANYthing is trustworthy.

If I allow myself to follow that evidence, if I allow myself to see all that is wrong in the world and, more importantly, use it to support the idea that I can’t, I shouldn’t trust, I live in fear and isolation. Fear and isolation feels like shit. Fear and isolation is an internal dialogue that never shuts up. Fear and isolation is being sure that you are alone and that if you screw up the consequences could be dire. Fear and isolation is living without love for yourself or anyone else. It’s enough to make me take up permanent residence in the blanket fort.

It seems to me that the only way to function at all without deciding and learning to trust is to live in fear – to watch, be vigilant, to inspect, to caution, and ultimately to create a container for our lives that is all enough that it may go unnoticed in the cruel world. The partner to that fear is busting your butt every waking moment of every day. This is how we shrink ourselves. This is how we lead small lives. This is how and why we hide the parts of ourselves that are crying out for display like a peacock’s fan. Who has time to be and feel amazing when there is so much to worry about? Who has the gumption to wonder if the things we’re choosing are what’s best for everyone if we think it is THAT scary out there? Who finds it compelling to take the undeniable risk of vulnerability if what we believe is that it is a sure path to our destruction?

But beloveds, it is all a choice. We can choose NOT to shrink. We can choose to act even in our fear. If I choose NOT to shrink, but to be my full self and thereby to trust the world with HER, everything is different. And yes, some people won’t like HER. And yes, some people will demand that she get back in that box. But oh lordy those feathers.

You see trusting doesn’t mean that I don’t see problems. Trusting doesn’t mean I won’t have problems. Trusting doesn’t mean that I don’t notice when things aren’t going my way. Trusting doesn’t mean we won’t have problems with other humans, our communities, our culture, our institutions. It DOES mean not seeing any of these as a signal that we are doomed, flawed, finished, washed up or even cursed.

animal-bird-feathers-148291.jpgI suppose it’s possible that folks are right and that I should be afraid – and believe me I still am more of the time than I care to acknowledge, but having experienced days without all of that fear, days in trust, and days when I act in trust even though I am afraid, I have to say I much prefer to live in a world where I believe I can actually be myself and ultimately I, and everyone else, will be better for that expression.

And oh lordy those feathers.

 

A Glimpse of Heaven

When I was in high school, I was invited to a Christian youth group. It was held in the evenings, at participating students’ houses. There were college aged leaders. Songs were sung – with guitar players from our school. The kids who went were nice. We had fun. The theology was pretty accessible and it felt really good to be there.

So I dug in.

I started reading the Bible.

I started listening to Christian music.

I joined a smaller group who did Bible study and met BEFORE school – meeting before school is a big deal for a teenager who is already completely fighting biological rhythms by starting school at 7:30.

I dug in.

And the connection was such a gift.

converse-all-star-fashion-foot-1581In that time of psychic disorientation and social confusion, romantic experimentation and disappointment, total insecurity and budding ego these smaller rooms full of people who seemed to want to do good, be better, and talk about what made that hard felt like a balm for my adolescent soul.

I went on a weekend trip to Ocean City. Honestly I don’t remember much of that – but only because it has faded, not because of either intoxicated highjinx or trauma. It just doesn’t stand out.

The time I spent with that group was good.

For Easter that year my Mom included a gospel tape (pre-CD, I am old) in my Easter basket in an attempt to be supportive. I hadn’t heard of the group and when I said thank you with a full understanding of the symbolism of the gift, my stepfather responded with: “Well, what else do you get a Jesus freak?”

That’s fine.

It was fine, really.

I didn’t particularly love the label, but I didn’t really care about it either.

What it DID say to me was that I was treading into water that was uncomfortable for my family.

Part of that discomfort was around the fact that the faith that I seemed to be dipping into had a real component of feeling. A little religious ecstasy was allowed. The Episcopal Church of my youth was not big on ecstasy – although if ecstasy had been around in the 70s I can’t make any promises about how that would have gone…

The point is that the messages I got – or I should say the messages I received/chose to hear/interpreted to be really fair – reflected a faith of the intellect, a mental pursuit of the holy. This new water I had my feet in said I could FEEL God. And oh lordy did I want to feel God, especially if God would love me unconditionally, accept me exactly as I was, be there in times of sorrow, be the friend I could count on. Oh yes I wanted to feel that God.

And it caused some worry, this change for me.

My sister checked in. She rightly raised theological questions: “Do these people think I’m going to go to hell if I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior?” I stammered, not really knowing the answer. You see, you don’t get to those kinds of issues for some time in well-orchestrated religious youth groups.

I had found a place that was safe, where I belonged, and it felt good. I felt good. I don’t just mean I felt good, like pleasant, I mean I felt like I WAS good because I was doing “right” things, being with others doing “right” things. It felt, and I felt good.

So good, that when the question of summer camp came up, I asked my parents if I could go. My folks paid for my trip and I anxiously waited for the months to pass until we could go to the Adirondacks as one big feel-good tribe.

And then the wheels kind of came off the bus. Some infighting developed. People began having issues with other people, even in the more devout early morning group – issues. The leaders worked to help us find ways to reach out to one another, to bridge the gaps. I really don’t remember the details, I just remember tension rising.

And then the bottom dropped out. School ended. I waited to hear about our camp trip. As the date approached, I didn’t hear anything. I started to get nervous – maybe something had gone wrong. My Mom asked if I had a packing list or anything – an address, emergency telephone, that sort of thing. Nada.

I waited and trusted. And then I called. I called someone else who was going and discovered that there had been several meetings in preparation for the trip. They had all been meeting without me. As an adult I can look at it and see that there was obviously some logistical snafu, I got left off the list. But that is DEFINITELY not how it felt to teenaged me.

I was sure that this was proof that these people were no different. I took it as evidence that this gathering was just one more place where people would be crappy to each other. And truth to tell, in those things I was right. But what I forgot was the good stuff. I forgot about all of the good stuff that came with it. And I wrongly attributed all of that to the people involved.

You see what I was really benefiting from was connecting to something larger than myself. I was feeling good because I was allowing myself to plug in. And I was willing to believe that the force that I was plugging into loved me, saw good in me, would care for me. THAT was where the good stuff was. THAT was the ecstasy behind the theology that, as an adult with internet who can look it up, I really can’t agree to.

By allowing myself to connect to something bigger and benevolent, I allowed myself a glimpse of heaven here on earth. I allowed myself to believe that I was okay, better than okay, worthy of love, worthy of attention, worthy of any of the things I wanted.

adult-black-and-white-blur-257037Today I know I can get that without agreeing to ideas about people being born evil or what they have to do get right. I can have that experience without even having to read or believe in any book at all. I can make contact, I can connect with all the parts of me. I can accept the parts I’m not as proud of. I can accept myself and love myself unconditionally. I can experience connection with the divine, and not even be sure what that means.

It’s been right there the whole time.

All I had to do was believe I was good enough and allow it.

In ill-defined and amorphous faith,

julia

When Your Belief Falters

This sounds like a title for a totally spiritual post, and in some ways I suppose this is, but the beliefs I want to address aren’t just about whether or not there is a divine force in the universe and what the true nature of humanity is. Don’t get me wrong, we can totally have those conversations. I’m the daughter of one and sister of another Episcopal priest. I am also married to a Unitarian Universalist seminarian. I can totally go there. What I wanted to say up front is that if that’s not your bag, you still have beliefs that this post applies to.

adult-blur-burn-783200I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve been having a tough time of it. I suspect a hormonal element, but don’t want to get diverted by a conversation of peri-menopause, because yeah, I don’t have many words about that that anybody wants to hear. Point is, in this tough time, I felt some beliefs shaking a bit. Some of them were new beliefs – things I’ve worked out, chosen, built up in the last several years. Some of them were old beliefs that I’ve been rediscovering. They all, collectively, felt great. And while I was feeling great I kind of forgot that beliefs and faith in just about anything don’t register at the same level on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis. There is a bit of an ebb and flow here. We wrestle with our beliefs and our faith in our minds. When we decide what we think about something, that’s not usually the end of the story. Old ideas re-emerge to challenge our decisions. Circumstances around us prompt us to doubt. The failure of the world to bend to our will and reflect our cherished positive beliefs can shake things up too. Ebb and flow.

I was discussing this shakeup with a trusted mentor and she asked me an important question: “What anchors do you have for when things get tough?” In other words, what can help buoy you? (I am avoiding an urge to talk about the spelling of that word.) Note that the question wasn’t: “What makes everything better? How do we add glitter to that? Where do you keep your rainbow unicorns?” It was “What helps keep you steady when the seas get dark and stormy?”

I thought about it and was able to answer with some daily practices that I usually participate in: prayer, journaling, exercise of some kind, and meditation of one form or another. Yes, it’s a lot. But it’s also not. THAT is probably a separate post.

The point is that these are the things that I’ve found that help to fill my cup when I am empty, that make my body feel good and my mind feel more peaceful, that bring clarity and oftentimes a sense connection that I crave. These are the things that keep me anchored. And so I have entered into a covenant with myself; I have promised to pursue these practices and, more importantly, I have acknowledged the increased importance of performing them when the legs on my table feel a little shaky.

It is the practices, the deeds, the daily devotions (or routines if you’re more comfortable with that, it’s just words) that create the bridge between ecstatic certainty and a return of hope. It is keeping the practical promises we make to ourselves when we are most connected, most certain, most sure that allows us to ride out the storm of uncertainty. It is the practice, because that’s the word we use right – practice, that allows us to refine our understanding of acting in faith even when our faith in ourselves, the divine, or the world falters.

A mentor of mine wisely encourages people to write these things down: to write down the promises you make to yourself about what you’re going to do to keep yourself anchored (even more structured people might even suggest you, gasp, schedule that ish). It’s not just spiritual practices, it’s decisions, ideas, projects, things you think might help/feel good/make your world better – all of that needs to get written down because stress wipes the slate clean. The cortisol hits your bloodstream and you become an idiot. I guess I should say that’s what happens for me – maybe stress makes you smarter, although the scientific literature suggests that’s unlikely.

That brain wipe thing, that’s pretty much what happened over this last dark spell. I had a pretty significant and exciting list of both devotional/mindset/get right with body and soul practices AND plans for business going into that space and then – brain wipe. All of it disappeared. What was I going to do next? What was that great idea? Who was I going to talk to about collaborating and why? What? Why on earth am I spending so much time on all of this meditative hooey? What’s the point? I couldn’t remember any of it. I broke all of my promises to myself. And I say that NOT as a form of self-flagellation. Self-forgiveness has already been applied. It’s just interesting to notice how it all devolved.

I hit a rough patch, my beliefs felt challenged. That scared me. I got stressed. I dropped several of my daily devotions and I completely forgot what I was supposed to be doing in my work. BOOM. I don’t want to say it all could have been avoided, but I do think the bottom, when I finally hit it, could have been higher… and who doesn’t want a higher bottom? (Yes, I amuse myself.)

beach-clouds-colour-674320I’ve been rambling for far too long here, and I’m trying desperately to bring things to a close, but I can assure you that there is no close on this particular topic. The relationship between me and my faith and between me and what I believe about myself and the world around me is an ever-evolving one. The covenants I make and the practices I keep may well need to shift over time as well. I’ll keep working at it. I’ll keep practicing. When it all goes in the tubes, I’ll try to keep my promises. If I forget again, I’ll remember the bottom line. Sometimes the best we can do is to care for the body, be gentle on the soul and wait for the tide to shift.

In love,

julia

 

On a Wing and a Prayer

aisle-bench-cathedral-161060The church of my childhood used prayer as part of every service. We would all kneel, or stand (depending on which part of the service). The minister would say some things. We might mumble some things back in unison. There was also a time when individual members of the community could offer their private concerns for the group to acknowledge and, in theory, pray for. This experience didn’t do much for my understanding of prayer. It wasn’t something my parents emphasized either. I think we said grace at the dinner table, but it obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me. These scripted group prayers were pro-forma, something you just did. It didn’t have to mean anything. With that in mind I embarked on a prayer-free adult life. If it doesn’t mean anything, why should I make any other choice, right?

Then a book on prayer found its way into my hands – into my library bag actually. I tend to enter the library with a list of three books and walk out with two bags. The exuberance of discovery takes over. The most interesting part about this literary infiltrator is that my understanding of the divine, God, gods, Goddess, Universe, Great Spirit, Gaia is pretty murky and non-specific. And yet this book, by an author with whom I was already familiar, was in my bag. I remember putting it in there in the fog of bibiophilic fever. It just kind of called out to me, so I grabbed it.

My seminarian looked at it a little askance, but wisely refrained from further comment until the book had some time to settle in, until I had time to spend with the book. We like to spend time with books over here.

A few days later I picked it up and glanced through. Some of the language made me pause. It included theological certainties I wasn’t ready to claim, but something in me said, “just read.” And so I did. The book is not really a book on prayer, but a book of prayers. Organized by theme, by human soul need: for when I need strength, when I feel hurt, when I need courage. I read through several and once I softened to the language (sometimes substituting my own proper nouns, sometimes deciding I wasn’t sure it mattered), I could see the beauty of the text.

What was there was some of the most intimate conversation I have ever seen. The prayers included deepest wounds, dearest hopes, admitted failings, and unmitigated heartbreak; disappointment in others, judgment of ourselves, and above all a deep and relentless desire for love and a sense of belonging. It was an extended song about human-ness and the melody of it tugged at my heart.

The next morning, after my kids had left for school, I decided to spend some more time with the book, not so much as a visitor, but as a participant. I looked through the table of contents for a state of mind that sounded like where I was at that moment, turned to the page and then sat there staring, needing further instruction. “Just pray.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant. There was no minister here to say part of it and for me to mumble back my dictated response. It dawned on me that I was supposed to SAY these words.

Well, there was no way that was happening. I can’t tell you exactly why, but my brain said No Way to the idea of praying from this book out loud. Not having it. You can forget it. Case closed. The coach in me thought that was interesting, but the rest of me wanted to get on with things, and there was the whole “Just pray” that I kept hearing softly. I decided it didn’t matter HOW I did this thing, it seemed to matter far more that I did it.

And so I did. I read through the prayer in my head. But I didn’t read it to get to the end. And I didn’t read it to analyze it. I spoke it in my head. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but it was different. I paused between lines. I took deep breaths when something caught me. When I was done, I closed the book and proceeded with my day.

I did this for a few days running, setting aside the language questions, just praying.

And I began to notice something. I began to notice a lightening, an easing of burdens I hadn’t even fully made note of. I noticed the arrival of a peaceful kind of energy – a calming and enlivening at the same time. To be fair, as this was the morning, this could all be attributed to the arrival of the small amount of caffeine I enjoy hitting the blood brain barrier, but it didn’t feel like that. It feels like being inhabited by the best vision. It feels like co-creation and capacity. It feels like love and possibility and joy – sweet, blessed joy.

blonde-casual-fashion-18895I’m not sure why all of that is and the last thing I’m interested in doing is arguing about that, but I can tell you that this practice – this practice of being honest about where my head and my heart are, claiming healing, expressing gratitude for what is and allowing the openness to accept whatever assistance might be forthcoming – this practice changes me. And it feels good – not look how holy I am good, but in my body and in my heart good, at peace, connected, more whole.

I still sometimes struggle with whether to speak the words out loud, and I’m still not sure about what language it makes sense for me to use, but I will just pray because it feels good.