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.

What’s In Your Attic?

I’ve been reading a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is a Lutheran pastor who is down to earth, funny, and unapologetic about all of the ways she doesn’t match the stereotype or the idealized version of a Christian minister. I find her work funny, meaningful, and incredibly inspiring. One of the reasons I like her so much is that she always makes the connection between the theological or the biblical and every day life. Now, I’m not going to do the same here as I have no interest in schooling you on the Bible or claiming any kind of theological authority, but this idea that Bolz-Weber put forward kind of stopped me in my tracks (metaphorically, I was reading on the couch, already stopped).

She’s writing about Advent, and I won’t go into it in too much depth (I do talk about Advent here, if that’s of interest to you), but she and a congregant begin discussing an idea about a practice for Advent, the time leading up to Christmas. She proposes to her friend that they make lists for Advent, you know like a Christmas list, but so not. A Christmas list includes everything you want to bring in, to add, to receive. An Advent list, on the other hand, includes everything that you’d like removed, everything (in her words): “we want Christ to break in and take from us. in the hopes he could pickpocket the stupid junk in our houses, or abscond with our self-loathing or resentment…” I am completely in love with this idea. I am so in love with it I needed to share it with you when the holiday season is half a year away. Patience has NEVER been my thing.

background-bags-bows-1050244This whole idea of the Advent list really got me to thinking about how we see “better.” When we think about things getting better in our lives, we often focus on what would add to them: more stuff, more space, more vacation, more clothes, more shoes, more good food, more time and always ALWAYS more money (me too, yes please).

In my own personal development and growth these last few years, however, I’ve seen that my greatest happiness, my biggest joys, my clearest leaps forward have all been as a result of removing something rather than adding something new. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all minimalist on you because anyone who’s seen my house knows THAT’s a laugh. The point here isn’t about the stuff, the cars, the house, or even the shoes (no, not even the shoes).

The point is that when it comes to our selves – our souls, our personalities, our essence(s) – it is rarely an addition that is needed.

Alright, WTH am I talking about. Let me share a little story.

Years ago, when I began to see my coach (yes coaches have coaches), I had a specific goal in mind. I wanted to figure out what to do professionally. The kids were growing up and I wanted to get back to work in some capacity. It was clear that the previous plan (me returning to the classroom) would not work when I began to feel nauseous (not in a nervous but more like a oh please no kind of way) every time I thought about it or got a call to substitute or did work towards renewing my certification. Every time. I decided to listen to the old God pod and explore other options.

My coach listened intently to my conundrum, the background story, the questions, the circular thinking, the distrust of my own preferences and she said, brilliantly: “I know you have a really specific goal here, but sometimes before you can deal with life on the first floor, you’ve got to clean out the attic.”

I laughed and shook my head, having known this was coming and not wanting anything to do with it. And yet, it was time. It was time to find the way forward by removing the impediments. It was time to find the way forward by dropping the shield. It was time to ask the questions WITHOUT having pre-scripted answers to run into. I needed things to be taken away. My relationship with religion has been somewhat spotty, but I do know miracles from humans when I see them. The work that my coach and I did together was nothing short of magical. She helped me find the junk that was in the way. She helped me clear the road, unclog the pipes, and clean out the attic. How’s that for whole lot of cleanup in a mixed metaphor?

agriculture-box-container-5841If you measure my life in material terms, it’s pretty darned good, and has been for a long time. Since my seminarian and I embarked on our mid-life crises simultaneously, that material reality has changed. We have less. But what we’ve really done is changed the internal landscape so dramatically that the shift in our income matters far less than it would have years ago. We have less in the attic: less self-doubt, less resentment, less certainty about what can’t be, fewer fearful voices, fewer rules, less need to fit in, less desire to compete, less need to buffer ourselves against the dissatisfaction we created. We have less. Those boxes have been sorted through, the gems moved into places of prominence and the tattered dregs tossed to the curb.

We have less, and so we find that we are able to be more, and that’s all we ever wanted.

What’s on your Advent list? What do you want taken out of your head, your heart, your life? You have several months to answer that question. If you’d like, I’d love to be part of your decluttering team.