Making Uncertainty an Ally



Sometimes it seems like the job of our life experiences is

to gently (& sometimes not so gently) separate us from

our deepest assurances, exposing us once again to that

ultimate teaching tool: humility, & to the ultimate

end: loving each other.


 Elizabeth Gilbert

Most of us are not good at not knowing. We like sure bets & guarantees.


Safety.  Certainty.  Clarity.


Albeit sincere, I WAS ONCE A KNOW-IT-ALL OF THE WORST VARIETY—the kind that combines ignorance with moral superiority. But late last century after an excruciating long learning curve, I locked into the understanding that the more I learn, the less I know.


Although the pursuit of absolute certainty with a defend-to-the-end worldview was once a priority for me, even a mission, it’s not something I strive for anymore.


I've learned the hard way that that’s how people I love get hurt, and ultimately, that people are far more important than ideological positions.



“...but the greatest of these is love.”



While I have always enjoyed learning & could be considered an autodidact, that is, someone whose knowledge is self-taught (yep, that’s a word I taught myself),  it took me 40 years to be okay with

saying “I don’t know” — letting go of needing all the answers & drawing orderly conclusions about life.


As Mark Twain so aptly put it, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know it's what we know for sure that just ain't so.”



How many times in your life have you felt absolutely positive that something was true, & it turned out otherwise?




If you haven’t, you will. Such is our shared human experience here on earth.


Many of us have rigid rules about how life should be lived. I’ve always been a certain person. When I was “right” I was absolutely certain of it.  And when I was “wrong” I was equally as certain of it.


Life eventually taught me otherwise when the ground beneath all that I’d accomplished & cherished shifted profoundly.


Author James Baldwin put it this way, “Everyone has a tendency to hold on to what they think they know. We don’t want to have our certainty disturbed. Then life comes along & smashes it to pieces.”


I didn’t recognize that clinging to some of what I was so convinced of was actually fear-based, & at best produced a false sense of security.


So imagine my surprise when I realized that my cocoon of certainty had become a prison.  My midlife “awakening” occurred after admitting my ignorance about most things that mattered.


Although initially traumatic, ultimately, it was a relief. I was plum worn out being "right". It was a heavy burden & a misspent life.


I felt as giddy as Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning: "I don't know anything!  I never did know anything! But now I know that I don't know."


Surprisingly, when I made friends with uncertainty the opposite of what I anticipated occurred. Insecurity & fear diminished & “not knowing” became a source of creative inspiration.


I discovered that the real me was hiding beneath all the things I thought I knew.




“I believe we have two lives, the life we learn with & the life

we live after that.”


Glenn Close in The Natural




Now I hold my "absolutes" humbly knowing how likely they are to evolve.


I realize I’m risking being misunderstood here. After all, if someone suggested embracing uncertainty as a spiritual practice to me 10 years ago, I would have considered them to be spewing spineless words of compromise & cowardice. (Melodramatic, I know.)


I’m not suggesting we don’t have a sure-footed sense of who we are & what we believe. But defensive, close-minded, stuck in ideology or theology, no.



"My idea of God  is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. "


C.S. Lewis



It appears that absolutism is the culprit that breeds judgment & distorts our perceptions of life.


While attending a book signing recently, I witnessed this firsthand when a group of parents — small children in tow — engaged in a knockdown-drag-out argument on the “right” way to parent. It seems they may have temporarily missed the point.


Right|left—open|shut—black|white—either|or thinking is not nuanced enough to reflect reality.  It's when we realize that it's possible to have different, yet equally valid points of view on many subjects & embrace a mesh of insights that our thinking expands in entirely new ways.


To me, “to become as a little child”  is to have an undefended openness to learning. Being childlike requires a sort of unguided curiosity that makes us open to new understanding, new revelation, & new ways of seeing things.



In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few.


Shunryu Suzuki



It’s much easier & kinder to sometimes know that you don’t know & for me, there’s been no discernible downside.


It seems that God kept just enough secrets under wraps in order to encourage us to cherish the mysteries & magic of life.




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To reduce our insistence on having tidy answers to all of life’s paradoxes in order to feel safe & secure.


To stay open. Continue to wonder.


To make peace with the uncertainty of certainty. Or should I say the certainty of uncertainty? I’m not certain, and I’m okay with that.

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