Embracing Uncertainty

When I was young, I enjoyed watching Gilligan’s Island, a popular Sit-Com of the era. There is one scene during the opening jingle where Gilligan is wearing large homemade wings and flapping mid air. His Buddy the Skipper is saying “Gilligan, you can’t fly, it’s impossible!” “I can’t?” “No!” Gilligan then falls to the earth.

I like this scene because is speaks of belief and certainty. Gilligan started out wondering if he could fly, and the Skipper gave him “certainly” that he could not. The irony being that he was already flying; his certainty papered over his actual experience with a mental construct.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of humanity; what we ate, how we lived, the development of language and the growth of culture. I can imagine a time in our early history where we developed the ability to think abstractly. We could imagine the future and plan for it. Yet all around was the unknown and the uncontrollable. The weather was unpredictable. Our sources of food and water were unknown. And each day contained the possibility to be attacked by animals or another tribe. We feared the unknown, and for good reason.

Our response to this fear of the unknown was to get smarter; better able to predict, and better able to control our environment. We developed agriculture to create a more reliable food source. We build homes to protect us from the elements and predators. We studied the change of seasons, the moon and the stars.

Humanity has made astounding progress in the last 10000 years. So much more is known. There is so much more certainty in our lives. Most of us do not worry about having enough food to eat, water to drink, or being eaten by tigers. But try as we might, we still live within a world of the unknown and uncontrollable.

I believe that fear of the unknown is one of the strongest fears within us. We are so uncomfortable being uncertain. I have found myself papering over the mystery and unknowableness of life with certainty. I’m certain about the continuation of relationships, income sources, and the American way of life. This certainty is a warm illusion I wrap around myself to avoid the uncomfortable unknown.

Certainty seems like such a positive confident thing. It creates a kind of quiescence of the mind; a comfortable separation from possibilities we dare not imagine. I could not even count the number of times I’ve been certain about something, only to have it be wrong. That investment that I’m certain will go up usually goes down. Could it be that certainty is actually the inverse of confidence?

I’ve observed something interesting when dealing with true experts in any subject area. Although those around them may be certain, these experts maintain a level of uncertainty. Once a person becomes certain, then there is no reason to learn more. This closes one to new information or alternative explanations. So the expert, being someone who is continually learning, will keep open to different perspectives. They are close to the boundaries of knowledge; boundaries that are in flux as new research comes in. From a distance, this boundary looks like a static wall, but from up close, its shape is changing. You could say that being certain is knowing just enough to be dangerous.

The Zen Buddhists talk about beginners mind: having the openness and wonder of not knowing. The beginner is uncertain, and this uncertainty allows for new growth and a fresh perspective. Uncertainty keeps one in contact with the present moment, while certainty keeps one in contact with their inner semantic reality.

Behind our desire for certainty lies our fear of the unknown. Yet we live in a world that is mysterious and uncontrollable. That was true during the early days of human history, and it’s true now. It will probably always be true. Maybe it’s time we get more comfortable with the unknown. Maybe it’s time to embrace uncertainty.

Drifting on the ocean

I’m drifting on the ocean in my luxurious life boat. The seas are calm right now, and there is water as far as I can see in each direction.

I’ve been craving to be back on land for a long time now. I’ve tried sailing in one direction, and no mater how far I go, I still see only water. In which direction is land the closest, and which lands do I want to travel to anyway?

I’ve been drifting so long my memory of the land is starting to fade. Did I really live on land most of my life? I’ve been wondering if I made it all up, as though I put photos of landscapes on the windows of my lifeboat to give myself the illusion of being on land.

Water is my life now. Water as far as the eye can see. It’s beautiful and austere, but also a bit lonely.  Should I be trying harder to reach land? Or should I just be content to sail where the currents of air and water take me? What if there is no land, and never was?

I give thanks for the supply of food and drink I have on my life boat, giving me time to ponder the mysteries of the wind and water. So little seems under my control; the wind and water flows as it will.

Sometimes I think I see land peering through the mist. Sailing toward the apparition, I cannot find it. Did I go the wrong direction? Was the land a mirage? I do not know.

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