The Limits of Certainty


Have you ever started a conversation with someone who is SO SURE of their position or interpretation of something, that you immediately realize there is little point in continuing to discuss the topic? Certitude, the strongly held belief that YOU ARE RIGHT, can be a dangerous space to inhabit for a variety of reasons.  You could be embarrassed or hurt down the road by being proven wrong (remember, we used to think the earth was flat).  Even worse, is that certainty limits possibilities – to learn, to inspire, to collaborate and create.  

We have a tendency to become more certain about things when change is afoot or when we are feeling particularly vulnerable.  When we perceive that something is shifting that will put at risk our current way of engaging in the world, our default position is often to do whatever we can to keep things the same – even if we don’t believe that the current state of affairs is all that great. (Think healthcare reform) Some folks would rather live with the limits that accompany being very certain about things, because it provides them a sense of safety in the ‘knowing’.  Imagine if we knew everything that was ahead for us though. Never a surprise, never a sense of, “Wow!  I never knew that!”.

That whole ‘certainty’ thing is such a fantasy, and we are reminded of this all the time.  One of the many gifts I receive in my role working with people who need physical rehabilitation, is that it is a regular – in your face – reminder of the lack of control we have over most of what happens to us.  When I encounter a woman who is working her way back after having been treated for breast cancer, and she tells me, “I just never saw this coming”, I think, “This could happen to me.”.  When I work with a young man whose car was T-boned at an intersection by someone running a red light, and he is struggling to regain his ability to walk and speak, I am reminded of the many near misses I have had on the road, and how THIS COULD HAVE HAPPENED TO ME!  Good and bad things happen to people all of the time that they could not have predicted.  I know this and so do you, we just forget it as we go through our daily lives.

We can live with illusion of certainty about what is ahead for us by creating stories about the degree of control we have.  If this is our choice, it may temporarily diminish the sense of fear that often accompanies uncertainty – until we are confronted with something that throws us off that path. But, it will surely limit joyous possibilities for us as well.  Or, we can choose to move forward in our lives without knowing the details of what is up ahead, with an openness to all that we will experience and a sense of optimism for our ability to successfully navigate the waters ahead.

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