My Friendship with Uncertainty

I have felt certain about very few things, if any, in my life, and I saw this conundrum of mine as a personality flaw, in that my uncertainty made me malleable and wishy-washy, incapable of having a firm opinion on any subject, none of which seemed like good traits to possess. Oddly enough, or not, I found the certainty in others to be bothersome, uncomfortable and I was skeptical of those who spouted their certainty with big voices and hubris. I’m learning, as of late, by sheer coincidence, that I should perhaps reconsider my position on uncertainty and its opposite partner. Let me explain.

I was driving down the road in January and flicked on my radio, which is pre-set to 106.5 CBC Radio. The first voice I heard was a woman saying that she found certainty “boring”, followed by a hearty laugh. I heard very little of the program, nor can I remember who it was that was speaking and though I’ve tried to unearth that episode of Tapestry, I’ve come up empty handed. All I can recall of her explanation for being bored by certainty was how certainty leaves no room for possibilities. She went on to say that religious extremists adhere to a certainty of their own philosophy, meaning their way or the highway, my words not hers. Her stance on certainty stuck with me for weeks. And then what happened?

I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, a very important read I might add, and certainty was again on centre stage, right there on page eighty-eight. “Despair is a form of certainty,” Solnit wrote. “Certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from; despair is a confident memory of the future.” Interesting. I rubbed my hands together. Solnit’s idea of hope, or at least the potential or basis of hope is that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring and therein is where hope lies. I like the idea of hope and uncertainty being close friends. And then what happened?

I got thinking about hope and I remembered reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom in my quest to understand how this man could cling so firmly to hope for the twenty-seven years he was imprisoned in South Africa for his anti-apartheid activism. He refused to believe in the certainty of his demise. I dug out my copy of his book and leafed through the pages I had dog-eared for future reference. “Hope,” Mandela wrote, “is a powerful weapon even while all else is lost.” Freedom for Mandela meant to live in a way that “respects and enhances the freedom of others”. Mandela spoke of poverty being an unnatural condition that does not require charity to be corrected, but instead requires justice. And then what happened?

I sought out Pyschology Today and their reporting on the concept of certainty in 2021, the “epidemic of certainty” plaguing society. The article explained that to have certainty “the brain must filter out more information than it processes”. That is where we find ourselves today. Our news feeds, if you can call it news, on social media reinforces our certainty by providing only the perceived evidence that supports our opinions and beliefs, while “ignoring or discounting contradictory evidence”. The Ancient Greeks warned us of the dangers of certainty, carving the reminder right on the front of the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the 20th century B.C. “Surety brings ruin”, is the translation of the words inscribed, meaning certainty is foolish. Side note – the Temple of Apollo was destroyed in 390 A.D. in the name of Christianity, to remove all evidence of paganism.

Many noted thinkers have expressed their opinions of the folly of certainty, such as Voltaire who wrote “doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” I like those words; I may have to put that on the bulletin board above my desk for comfort when I wonder if what I am doing has any value. I was once told that uncertainty is the driving force behind learning, for if we thought we knew everything, what would be the point in challenging our brains to learn new things.

I have the great fortune of living in the woods where there is little or no light pollution which allows me at night to gaze up at the stars that look close enough for me to reach up and touch. “For my part,” Vincent Van Gogh wrote, “I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Me, too.