Living with uncertainty

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

It is the first of the new year and I, like many of my optimistic fellow Americans, have a need to arm myself with resolutions. It helps us meet the uncertainty of the new year if we feel resolved to do something to improve our lots in life.

Certainty is certainly reassuring. And in these uncertain times, dogmas and confident resolute leaders can be very attractive.

But we are currently burdened in our American culture with leaders who are giving us a very bad and troubling experience with certainty. Whatever you think of George W. and Dick Cheney, they are the embodiment of certainty. "I am the decider," proclaims the apparently never doubtful president.

Personally, I agree with that wise person who famously said "Certainty is the enemy of wisdom."

The certainty game is better played by the young. After all, no one really expects them to be wise, and arrogance is worn better on them because it can be understood as their compensation for naivety. But an older dude coming off as so certain about this or that just looks preachy and stubborn.

I think we have more to learn from a sweet little Buddhist nun than we have from those big puffed-up guys who have been deciding everything for us of late. Pema Chodron, in her powerful book "Comfortable with Uncertainty," speaks to the human mind's need to seek the security that comes from the cocoon of our certainty. But it is this certainty that, according to Chodron, creates our suffering as humans. We think we know who we are, who others are, but this is just our vain attempt to steel our ego ("I am invincible") and mitigate our fear of others ("He's no threat to me").

The main problem with clinging to our created or adopted certainties is that they too often turn out to be unreliable. A relationship you thought was forever suddenly falls apart. Your loving spouse is unexpectedly and suddenly taken from you by death. A seemingly secure career is derailed by forces beyond your control. In response, we continue to create more certainty in our lives, moving to even more secure environments, more alarm systems, more and more mistrust creating separation from our fellow humans; and we are drawn to more and more dogmatic ideologies and spiritual beliefs.

"We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe," suggests Chodron. "But the truth is the we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It's also what makes us afraid."

Chodron encourages us to become more fearless in the face of uncertainty. When faced with something about ourselves or about others that makes us afraid, we can either escape it through such maneuvers as denial, addiction and pleasure-seeking, or we can face it. As Chodron asks rhetorically: "Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?"

So, as I face the unknown of 2008, I will resolve to be "unresolved," to be fearless in facing the uncertainty of what is to come, to remain open, awake and curious.

"Everything in our lives has the potential to wake us up or to put us to sleep," says Pema Chodron. "Allowing it to wake us up is up to us."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at For more on the topics covered in Healthspan, visit his Web site:

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: