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.

Mind Your Business

4th-of-july-american-bright-461917In the U.S., the 4th of July brings with it a lot of revelry, a lot of gathering, a lot of flag waving, and sometimes some reflection on our national culture.

The founders get referenced heavily. I both understand and respect that. I taught government and history in high schools. Classes on political philosophy in my graduate program were my favorite.

I support the urge to reflect while we celebrate whatever it is that this holiday means for each of us individually and as a group. I especially support the urge to reflect on our ideals NOW, when so many of us feel that we are not living up to them in any way that we want to recognize.

I don’t want to wax too heavily political here, not because I fear losing you or upsetting you, but because there are so many spaces for that. I can engage in these arguments, and get heated about it, but I know that I need spaces for quiet reflection in order to make sense of my world. Maybe you do too. So that’s part of my mission today, and maybe every day, to create a space where we can step away from the raging of the world and check in with our ideals, check in with our hearts, and check in with the path that lies before us. Sometimes those paths include politics.

A friend told me the other day that when the founders were trying to come up with a motto for the baby United States, Ben Franklin suggested (with humor as he did most things) that “Mind Your Business” would make a good motto. It reflected the drive toward commerce that was so much a part of the American character even then as well as the fear of interference in private and business affairs that the colonists’ experience with England had reinforced. Franklin acknowledged that his suggestion was not adequately transcendent. Eventually E Pluribus Unum was chosen.

I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to think about both of these phrases as part of our celebration of independence.

Frankly while I like the idea of E Pluribus Unum (from many, one), it doesn’t seem to have gotten us much unum.

I wonder, instead if Franklin might have been onto something, but that he limited his scope of interpretation such that he missed his own brilliance. I think a case could be made for Mind Your Business as both a more accurate reflection of the American character AND as an aspirational tool – an idea that could create transcendence.

On the accuracy front, Mind Your Business would have, at the very least, been a more honest reflection of the reality of most of the founders as men of money and commerce. It certainly would have been a more accurate reflection of those who were slaveholders and who protected that practice in the Constitution. From Many, One doesn’t mean much if the many are all propertied white men. Unum is easier to achieve in small groups.

As for transcendence, I’d like to propose an alternative meaning for Mind Your Business, one I’ve mentioned, but only at the surface level, before. This understanding of Mind Your Business is not an admonition to leave someone alone, but instead, an urging to really dig deeply into what you are trying to do in this world, to check in with your heart, with your intuition, with your values, with your god if you have one, to actually attempt to align your life with the things, ideas, principles, and feelings that matter the most to you. Minding your business is not about privacy so much as it is about intellectual honesty and active integrity.

I wonder what would have been different had the founders decided to mind their business in this way. While I cannot overlook the founders’ failure of morality in institutionalizing slavery in law, I recognize the conflict that it presented internally. I wonder what might have been different for them, for African Americans, for ALL of us had they taken those misgivings more seriously than the approval of their peers, if they trusted that they would, in fact, be able to continue to survive and even thrive financially if they just learned to live in integrity with the sense of the grave injustice in which they were participating. I wonder what would be different had they chosen to mind that kind of business. Mightn’t they have taken their misgivings to heart and defended them as passionately as they defended things like individual rights (for propertied white men) and the need to establish a government that could actually act in the common interest (of propertied white men)? Could they then have made slavery a thing of the past 75 years ahead of the Civil War?

What would be different?

It’s an intellectual exercise to be sure, but it’s also a clarion call as we enter these days of celebration and festivity. If we are to celebrate our founding with any seriousness, can we not also examine its limitations and see what lessons they might hold for us today?

E Pluribus Unum – From Many, One.

Mind Your Business – Act with Integrity for Principles that Matter

I admit to a heavy heart heading into this holiday.

agriculture-cloudscape-cloudy-skies-129539I will still go to see fireworks, because I do love them.

I will still find wisdom and inspiration in some of those old ideals.

And I will hold them up to the light of my heart. I will check them and how they are used, carried out, and desecrated. I will act in integrity because that’s what not just patriotism, but responsible humanity, demands of me.

So be it.

Face Value as a Starting Point

I had to block someone on Facebook yesterday. It is the second or third time I have had to do that – maybe that’s a lot. I don’t know.

Here’s what happened. I posted something admittedly provocative, about something I feel very strongly about, gun violence in schools. What I posted offered no policy prescriptions, it was simply a photo that demonstrated the severity of the problem in a stark and moving way. Within 5 minutes someone who was in my friend circle (I think because of a tenuous music booking connection from a few years ago) but from whom I had never heard before (despite plenty of other provocative posts) decided that I was calling for a repeal of the second amendment and to throw a bunch of memes at me by way of arguing.

In retrospect, I feel a little sorry for him. He – let’s call him Phil for the sake of reducing ambiguous pronouns – clearly did not know what he was getting into.  That was my face value response. The other part of my face value response was that this was a conversation that would not go anywhere. I was familiar with the predicted path of Phil’s argument and had no patience or sympathy for the viewpoint I assumed he had. I also suspected, based on some experience, that his interest in my point of view would be limited and would likely include some version of “libtard.” That was my face value assessment, plus a load of assumption and some knee-jerk reacting.

Being clear minded about all of that – self-aware about my judgments and my knee jerkiness on this subject in particular, I decided to try to engage. But I determined to try very hard not to beat him up. I determined not to paste the wall with graphs. I determined to ask questions. I proceeded to explain that if he was up for a policy discussion, I was in. If he wanted to meme toss, I was not interested. And so it began.

attractive-beautiful-beauty-1024403Phil staked out a few positions, avoiding actually saying “libtard,” but only just. And I felt the thrill of the self-righteous as I demanded respectful interchange and grilled Phil about policy positions. I pointed out the errors in his logic (with glee that I attempted, but likely failed, to hide). I brought him back to what I viewed as the central question as he attempted to shift the context of the discussion. I gave counter-factual for the facts he presented. I was pretty logically disciplined.

A very dear old friend jumped in and I felt bolstered by having an actual attorney arguing with me, until my wonderful attorney friend raised the point that I so wish I’d focused on all along. My friend got right to the heart of the matter and said he was sorry that Phil was so afraid – and he said it in a way that made it clear that he meant it sincerely – no sarcasm, no ill-will, just wow – I’m so sorry you are hurting.

And that is where my face-value assessment fell short. Because I had been right about ALL of my predictions and all of my assumptions. I had been right about exactly how this would go. What I failed to see was that my response to Phil was as much a part of that equation as his idiotic arguments (yep, still feel that way). What I failed to see in all of my super self-righteous generosity about engaging in this conversation even though it would go nowhere is that I did very little to try to chart a different course. I was careful not to insult him. That was my concession.

What I failed to do was choose love. What I failed to do was expand on a more loving perspective even when it was presented to me. When my dear old (he’ll really love that I’ve called him old twice now) friend demonstrated sympathy, rather than pausing and breathing and checking my course, I just let my circuits get a little fried, judged myself for not being that nice and proceeded with my policy discussion.

Just as Phil wasn’t interested in hearing my demands for government action, I wasn’t interested in understanding his heart. I wasn’t interested in leading with love. I  wasn’t interested in asking the one question I now wish I’d asked instead of peppering him with specific policy questions (a shitty but easy thing for someone who’s had a lot grad school to do). I just wish I’d said: “Yeah Phil, you do sound really scared. Why are you so scared? What makes you scared?” Not in a you don’t have any right to be scared way, but in a I know it sucks to be scared and I am willing to listen to your fear kind of way. I am willing to love you in your scaredness (autocorrect really wanted that word to be sacredness, which I find both charming and ironic – the lesson continues) even though I disagree with you wildly on something that is connected to my deepest and truest fear. I alluded to my fears, but it was in all caps to convince rather than to share, to connect, to love. Phil continued arguing after both of his opponents had declared their intent to leave the field. “We’re not getting anywhere and it’s late.” He kept going and got more heated and a little more personal, both in his interpretation and his assertions. That’s the end for me, but looking back I can see how that happened. I’m not saying it’s all my fault, but I can imagine how it must have felt.

And now it feels like the opportunity to do better has passed, although that’s rarely ever completely true. I have admittedly blocked Phil and am unsure (to be perfectly honest) that I would like to change that as I was exhausted by this whole thing (and my ego still wants that to be about him). But I want to pause and realize that my problem from the get go wasn’t that I took him at face value and responded, but that I stayed right there. I didn’t allow my assessment and understanding to change even when it became clear that face value was not enough, not this time.

art-beach-beautiful-269583Face value is a great starting tool, especially when the other party is not revealing more; it can keep us from delving into other people’s personal thoughts and obsessing about our own choices, but face value has its limits. Love demands awareness when it’s time to make adjustments. Love demands not just listening but hearing. To quote a favorite songwriter: “Love reaches out,” not with facts and an agenda, but with curiosity and openness.

I can’t undo the exchange I had, and even now there are parts of it that I feel pretty good about; but today I will try again, with more open ears to reach my ever more open heart.

Don’t think. Look.

“Don’t think, but look.”

A quote by Ludwig Wittegenstein, my Dad’s favorite philosopher. I recognize that not everyone’s Dad has a favorite philosopher, but mine did. Dad was a philosophy student as an undergrad at Dartmouth, despite the ribbing he got from the electricians he worked with over the summers who asked if he was going to open a philosophy store. My father went on to Yale seminary where he got to study more philosophy before he left in favor of employment that would better provide for his growing family.

bible-old-bible-historically-christianity-159688When I brought my now husband (and current seminarian – yes I see the echoes and prefer not think about it too much) to meet my Dad, they quickly discovered their common undergraduate pursuit and began the “who’s your favorite philosopher” conversation. I quickly went from being nervous about the meeting to being a little annoyed that they were getting along so well and everyone had lost interest in me, because it is all about me after all.

At any rate, the point isn’t that moment, although I appreciate your indulging me in sharing it. It is one of my favorite memories of the two of them. All of this to say that when I hear the name Wittgenstein, my antenna are up. I am listening, which ironically is exactly what I think Wittgenstein would want. I stop thinking about whether or not I have a favorite philosopher, and pay attention.

Not many philosophers start with: “Don’t think,” but this is where Wittgenstein starts.

And having grown up as I did, in a household where rationality was very highly prized, the command to not think makes me uneasy. The irony of my Dad favoring this particular philosopher is startling to me. In times where the world and the people on it seem to need some serious attention, the command to not think feels almost irresponsible, until you consider the rest of the quote.


It’s not just don’t think. It is LOOK.

I can’t say that I know what Wittgenstein was trying to say because I was NOT a philosophy student, but here’s what I’m picking up from what he was laying down, my life coach spin on the whole idea.

When we think first, we rely on everything we already know, everything we assume, all of the decisions, suppositions, and assumptions we’ve already made. What this does is that it narrows our vision.

Because this is how the brain works friends. Our brains prefer efficiency. There is SO MUCH information available to us. Our brains have had to develop ways to filter all of that information. It’s a lot like the internet, right? I occasionally remind my husband when he is deeply engrossed online in a way that promises to last into the wee hours that he is not going to get to the end of the internet. There is no way to see it all.

Social media sites know that there’s no way to even see everything all of our friends and acquaintances post, so they filter it for us. They develop algorithms (formulas) to filter what we see. These are based on our preferences, the information they have about us. And this is exactly how our brains work.

We think, we have an idea about something. And then our brains, when faced with all of the information in the world, filter that information based on our idea. We don’t SEE everything. We see the things that support what we already believe, what we assume, what we know. It doesn’t matter whether we’re right or not. We see evidence that helps us be sure that we are. This is called confirmation bias. It’s a real thing. Google it if you don’t believe me. When faced with a situation, when we think first (and bring in all of our old thoughts and assumptions), what we see is limited.

girl-sea-binoculars-vacation-160514The suggestion not to think is not a suggestion to stop thinking for all time, but to prevent that filtering from happening and look. Look to see what is in the world. Notice what is happening. See it with fresh eyes and take in the facts. See the situation as others might see it. See the situation the way nobody has seen it yet because everyone is burdened by the ideas they showed up with.

And THEN, after you’ve seen, after you’ve given the situation fresh eyes, THEN you think again. You use that new information. You access new feelings based on what you saw. And then you think about all of that. You make adjustments. You chart a course. You make demands. You act based on what is actually happening rather than a limited view of reality based on your brain’s attempts to make life easier for you.

Don’t think, but look.

Who knows what you will see?