I came across this quote today:
“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here …. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”
– Richard Feynman
Well said, Mr. Feynman. I, too, can live with doubt and uncertainty. If nothing else, there’s only one thing I actually can be certain of — that along the way, there will be plenty of doubt and uncertainty. Then again, maybe there won’t be 😉 And the idea of “being lost a mysterious universe without any purpose”… well, that’s not unfamiliar to me.
I’ve been having a bit of existential angst, lately, and it seems to me that, rather than having the universe (or even our lives) “pre-loaded” with purpose, it’s our job to provide the purpose on our own. Free will and all that. Seems to me, that if someone or something else is supplying the purpose for us — and it’s just our job to live up to it — then it really cuts back on the amount of self-determination, even free will, that we have to exercise. Personally, I’d rather come up with the purpose on my own.
Anyway, I had an interesting discussion with someone close to me, a few months back. We were talking about faith and religion and what religious orientation we were. I said that I believe a lot of things, but I just believe them — I don’t pretend to know them for sure. And ultimately, I had to say, I really am an agnostic. It’s not that I don’t hold to any creeds or tenets — I do. I’m just all too aware that I could be wrong.
It really bothered the person I was talking to. They’re the kind of person who needs a lot of certainty in their life. They require it, in fact. I guess they grew up in a very uncertain environment, where their parents’ unpredictability was literally life-threatening for them, at times. I think that’s shaded their view of life a lot.
Well, I had a very uncertain childhood, too, but most of the life-threatening uncertainty took place outside my home. Inside, there was plenty of pain and struggle, but I can’t say that it was life-threatening… Maybe that’s saved me.
Anyway, yes, I am very comfortable with not knowing a lot of things. Knowing them, in fact, would probably depress the crap out of me, because the mystery would be gone, and for me, mystery is the nectar of life. It sweetens the experience and gives me something to look forward to discovering. Doubt, too, is an essential part of my life, for it keeps me honest and keeps me paying attention.
It’s the absence of certainty that makes things the most interesting for me. The utter, total lack of surety that I feel whenever I approach science or medicine or philosophy or religion, is what entices me to come closer… They seem (to me) to be disciplines pursued by individuals passionately dedicated to infusing life with certainty, yet at their very core, they do exactly the opposite, constantly evolving and turning over their own “proven” tenets, when they are at their most honest.
That contradiction, the overturning of “certainties” and the tearing-down of prior assumptions is where things get the most interesting for me. And the folks who dedicate their lives to the uncertain science of self-challenging discovery really comfort me with their openness. At the same time, the folks who ply their scientific and medical and religious trades with an air of absolute certainty strike me as being the least reassuring, especially when they sit across from me behind their big wooden desks and proclaim “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that such-and-such a diagnosis or prognosis IS SO.
It’s a problem, that discomfort with absolute “certainty”. For my doctors, and for me. They’re trying so hard to convince me that they know what they’re doing, and the harder they try, the less I believe them, because they seem so unwilling to leave room for error. Or maybe that’s required by their malpractice policies. Who can say?
The more I think about it, the more I realize that this doubt of mine, this comfortability with doubt and uncertainty, and my willingness to entertain different approaches and different positions and different “diagnoses” is one of my biggest points of friction with the folks in my life who present themselves as experts. For me, expertise isn’t so much about being in possession of the right answers, as it is having mastered the fine art of asking the right questions and being open to new possibilities, and being willing to do what needs to be done, to get to a workable solution/response/alternative to a sticky problem (aka, me).
It’s not about having one single answer (or more than one). It’s about having the capability of asking the right questions and being entirely open to the possibility that there is no single answer (or more)… and that life is a big-ass mystery, so there you have it. It’s about having a firm enough grasp on reality that you can see that you cannot possibly know much of anything for sure, because the world is an infinitely huge place with tons of plausible possibilities, and — tell me again — why is it so necessary to be ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME?
I’m rambling, I know. Taking advantage of your (perhaps) overtaxed patience… I apologize for that. But the bottom line I’m trying to get to is in keeping with the nature of this post — for me, there is no ultimate answer, there is no final proclamation, there is no silver bullet. And (since I might be wrong), if there is, I don’t want to know about it. I like having things open-ended. I like having things unresolved. Deep down inside, all my bitching and moaning notwithstanding, I like having a really unsettling level of uncertainty in life, and I like constantly seeking out answers. It’s the journey I enjoy… not so much the final arrival at the destination. For me, the destination keeps changing, keeps shifting, keeps morphing into something quite different than it was last week.
So long as I can keep up with my rest and not completely fry my system with pointless excess and rank stupidity… so long as I can remember that I am, after all, very human, and nobody’s got this human thing all figured out… and I can remember that I’ve gotten clunked on the head often enough to shear and shred the neural connections that other people tend to take for granted… well, I can accommodate the confusion and the uncertainty and the mystery of it all. I can cut myself a break and pace myself and just keep on keeping on as best I can. I can let myself marinate in that divine uncertainty, that heavenly bliss of who-knows-wtf-is-going-on (and who cares?) And I can let the rest of the world do its thing, as well.
At the end of the day, I guess what matters most to me at this particular point in time, is not so much specific outcomes in undertakings in my life. What matters most to me is the process I go through to get where I’m going. I may never arrive at exactly the “right” place, or achieve precisely what I set out to. But if I’m true to myself, to my heart, to my convictions, and I don’t let the meanness of the world get to me… if I can manage to make room for love in my life as frequently as possible, and I can extend a helping hand to others along the way… then wherever I end up, and whatever shows up on down the line, will have its place.