Better Questions is supported by readers like you. If you get value from my writing, consider becoming a supporting member. Exclusive content, weekly deep-dives, free beta-access to future courses and more. Thanks.
We want certainty, and we'll do anything to get it.
We want the world to be ruled by reason - to be thoughtful, logical, "right-thinking."
Everything in its place, all the facts on our side.
We want the universe to fit into a spreadsheet, into a grid. We want the universe to have laws, and we want them enforced.
We want to know.
We want to predict.
We want to control.
I'm more guilty of this than most. I collect facts, I collect quotes, I collect books and figures and mental models in the hopes that someday the universe will finally give up its secrets. Surely, around some corner there is something that will make it all make sense.
And yet - through this very need...
Understanding drifts further and further away.
The more we think we know, the less we understand.
“Certainty is a cruel mind-set. It hardens our minds against possibility.”
The knowledge of which we feel most certain crowds everything else out. The more closely we identify with a given view of reality, the less willing we are to explore alternatives.
The more certain we become, the more we close ourselves off.
“Life, so full of contradictions and surprises, rarely ever makes complete sense. The pieces of the puzzle seldom fit together perfectly. When they do—beware.”
In our reliance on "reason" we become even more wedded to emotion.
What we believe to be rational thought is often simple emotionality in disguise; a post-hoc rationalization meant to disguise our terrified inability to let things be uncertain.
Your sense of being right about something, the sparkling clarity of certainty, is not a thought process, not a reasoning process, but an emotion that has nothing to do with whether you are right or not. Our brain has evolved to trick us about this.
When we feel right about something, and someone asks us why, we’ll be quick to offer a reason explaining our actions. What psychologists find time after time, though, is that those explanations are mostly postdecision justifications rather than a considered decision-making process beforehand.
Why? Because we didn’t need to make a decision; we just felt we knew what to do.
Jennifer Garvey Berger
The need for something to rush in, to fill the gap of uncertainty, to fill all empty spaces with "knowledge" and to shine a light on every mystery - this is not love of learning. It is the panicked, desperate clawing of humanity against the possibility of doom.
We need to control, and to control we must understand. Every dark corner must be illuminated, lest "there be monsters."
All our books, and highlights, and notes, and bookmarks, and endless rows of open tabs and saved articles and starred podcasts and favorited YouTube videos and courses purchased but never finished...
These aren't a search for knowledge.
They are a search for safety.
"There must be a secret - and if I could only figure out what it is, life will make sense."
But it never does.
What if we...
What is there instead of analyzing, and reading, and searching, and learning, and studying, and dissecting, and experimenting?
"In song and in dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air, dancing. His very gestures express enchantment."
In uncertainty, there can be beauty. There can be surprise, and delight, and excitement.
In the act of allowing uncertainty to permeate our lives - foregoing the urge to lock every door and check every box - we open ourselves up to possibility.
Just as with a dance, we can lead - apply our rational minds as best we can to the world around us.
But dancers who lead also need to be sensitive to their partner - to the unique characteristics and tendencies of their movement. Only by doing so can we flow, to become a single, unified whole.
This is not a process that can broken apart into its constituent pieces and understood. It can only be entered into. It can only be experienced.
We can accept our own limitations.
We can allow uncertainty to exist, Staying as open as possible to new possibilities.
We can remind ourselves that the more certain our stories seem, the more on-guard against our own hubris we should be.
By allowing uncertainties to exist without needing to fill them in, by seeking out experiences and opinions that contradict our own, by letting go of the need to know and to predict and to control that which cannot be controlled -
We leave ourselves open to a fascinating and endless world of possibility.
Things we'd never thought we'd experience.
People we'd never thought we'd be.
Places we'd never thought we'd go.
Donella Meadows, perhaps, said it best:
The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.
Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned.
We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them.
We can’t impose our will upon a system.
We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.
We can’t control systems or figure them out.
But we can dance with them!
COOL THINGS TO READ:
The Changing Room Illusion, one of the best optical illusions of 2021.
You can find the rest of them here, but this was my favorite. :-)
Better Questions Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.