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Living with Uncertainty

Certainty is certainly reassuring—in these uncertain times dogma and confident, resolute leaders can be very attractive.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

It is the first of the new year, and I, like many of my optimistic fellow Americans, have a need to arm myself with resolutions; it helps us meet the uncertainty of the new year if we feel resolved to do something to improve our lots in life. Certainty is certainly reassuring. And in these uncertain times, dogma and confident, resolute leaders can be very attractive.

Michael Seabaugh

Yet we are currently burdened in our culture with leaders who are giving us a bad and troubling experience with certainty. Whatever you think of George W. and Dick Cheney, they are the embodiment of certainty. “I am the Decider,” proclaimed the apparently never doubtful president. Those from the John Wayne School of Manhood (or the Laura Schlessinger School of Womanhood) will most likely approve of this approach to life : and just as likely will not even question it. But I am thinking that history just may have some interesting things to say about this particular form of imperious confidence.

Personally, I agree with that wise person who famously said, “Certainty is the enemy of wisdom.”

The certainty game is better played by the young. After all, no one really expects them to be wise, and arrogance is worn better on them, as it can be understood as their compensation for naivete. But an older dude, coming off as so certain about this or that-he just looks like a preachy, stubborn old fart.

I think we have more to learn from a sweet little Buddhist nun than we have from those big, puffed-up guys who have been deciding everything for us of late. In her powerful book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chdrn speaks to our human mind’s need to seek the security that comes from the cocoon of our certainty. Where we come up with this certainty can vary: a religious belief, a political platform, a pop psychology book that promises you the seven keys to living the Hallmark-card life. But it is this certainty that, according to Chdrn, creates our suffering as humans. We think we know who we are, who others are, but this is just our vain attempt to gird our ego (“I am invincible”) and mitigate our fear of others (“He’s no threat to me”).

The main problem with clinging to our created or adopted certainties-the “zones of safety,” Chdrn calls them-is that they too often turn out to be unreliable. A relationship you thought was forevermore suddenly falls apart. Your loving spouse is unexpectedly taken suddenly from you by death. A seemingly secure career is derailed by forces beyond your control. In response, we continue to create more certainty in our lives, moving to even more secure environments, more alarm systems, and more and more mistrust, creating separation from our fellow humans; and we are drawn to more and more dogmatic ideologies and spiritual beliefs.

We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe,” suggests Chdrn. “But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It’s also what makes us afraid.”

Not only does fearing uncertainty put us to sleep and constrict our world, but it prevents us from really knowing ourselves. According to Chdrn, “The most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

She further encourages us to become more fearless in the face of uncertainty. When faced with something about ourselves or about others that makes us afraid, we can either escape it through such maneuvers as denial, addictions, and pleasure-seeking, or we can face it. As Chdrn asks rhetorically, “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”

So, as I face the unknown of 2008, I will resolve to be “unresolved,” to be fearless in facing the uncertainty of what is to come-to remain open, awake, and curious.

Everything in our lives has the potential to wake us up or to put us to sleep,” says Pema Chodron. ” Allowing it to wake us up is up to us.”

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at healthspan@mac.com and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information.

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