The Certainty of Uncertainty

If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time in your head trying to figure “it” out. I recently managed to work myself into a pickle with my retirement savings. Without going into details, my actions cost me a lot of money through sheer impulsive stupidity. The hard fact is, though, that it’s done. There’s not a damn thing I can do about it anymore.

And, yet, I’ve spent hours and hours continuing to think about what a bad idea it was. I’ve awoken in the middle of the night to grind away on the tax implications. My mind gets lost looking at this completed series of actions from every angle– judgment, worry, alternatives that I should have done, and on and on. I relive it in my body with a racing heart, flushed face, and inability to sleep whenever it catches me.

Let’s review, though. The act itself is done. The actions that will be required to recover from it are unknowable at this point. So, there’s nothing I can do, no matter how much I grind away on the subject, that will make any difference. That is especially true when I’m in bed at 3:AM or involved in something completely unrelated. All I’ve done is deprive myself of sleep and my project of my full attention, thereby making my life a little bit worse.

The responsible thing to do is to just let it go. I have to take refuge in the only certainty there is: that I have no idea how this thing, or much of anything, will play out over the course of my life.

Accepting having no idea is not being lazy. It’s not being uncaring. It’s an insightful understanding that you cannot possibly know for sure if you’ll save enough for retirement because… inflation, pancreatic cancer, house might burn down or appreciate greatly, divorce, surprise inheritance, meteor, plane crash, or new lucrative career. All you can do is to take reasonable measures, when it’s time to do that, and then move on without knowing exactly what fruit they’ll bear.

Everything we do sets off ripples in the pond of life, the effects of which are impossible to predict. Sometimes, we have statistics on our side and have a pretty good guess about possible outcomes of some aspect of our actions, but who hasn’t been surprised at a rejection for a date or job we were positive was ours or set off on a well-planned journey to be sidelined by a lost passport, mechanical failure, or accident?

It’s even more fruitless to spend those cycles trying to figure out why someone is the way they are or why they said something they did. You can certainly ask them, and if they’re really self-aware, they might be able to give you some insight, but I guarantee you that you will not figure it out in your head. Thinking about it more gets you no closer to knowing, not that you could.

I’ve been spending some time with this idea in my practice, and as with everything in it, I’ve come around to understanding that even sitting in the stillness of my meditation, I get caught trying to figure It out. Where’s that enlightenment that I ordered? Is THIS being in the moment? If I do this long enough, will something happen? I want answers, dammit!

The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks.
— Stephen Batchelor
Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist

Real freedom is to let go of certainty in general– certainty about others, yourself, and even the nature of things. By allowing ourselves to really float in a sense of curiosity and constant discovery, we’re open to possibilities that our certainty doesn’t allow.

People can allowed to be however they are right now, and we can really listen. Solutions can be selected for this situation rather than dogma or dug-in position. We can experience our moment-to-moment life as it happens rather than trying to figure out how everything came to be or will turn out in the end. The present moment, the current state of affairs, came about because of an infinity of factors, the next will come about as a result of an infinity more, and there are an infinity of those moments. They just keep coming.

We have to realize that asking ourselves to somehow freeze time and map all of that out is not possible. Instead, we can relax into looking at each as real as any other, treating it as best we know how, and then letting it go without knowing what’s coming next.

I goofed with my money. Not sure what that means in the long run. Now, I’m going to go get myself a sandwich.


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