Nov2018: Life Is Uncertain; Why Aren’t We?

by Brad on October 28, 2018

“We are so intimidated by other people’s emotions, and so convinced by our own, that we lose sight of the underlying reality.”   – Deepak Chopra


Everywhere we look, we see how uncertain things are: hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, relationships, jobs, even a truck around the next curve. On the surface, we seem to accept this is true, but the fact is that we hate it. We like knowing things much better. Underneath it all, we humans have a need to feel safe, and it seems we somehow equate knowing with certainty; we then equate certainty with safety. Neither of these is at all valid, but we’ve learned them as truth, starting early in life: know a lot, have answers, avoid mistakes, set goals, measure results, stay in control.

Our world is far too complex for us to know everything, or even know enough to make confident choices for our lives, or for our children’s lives. I’m not talking here about things we can know but just don’t – like the distance to Mars, the population of Fiji, or names of the state capitals. I’m talking here about the challenging issues of our time – such as how to sustainably steward our planet and its resources; ethical implications of artificial intelligence and the internet; how to ensure a well-educated and healthy citizenship; or how to keep our homes, communities and world safe places to live. These issues are insanely complex, and affect every aspect of our world: science, politics, economics, ethics, law, etc. None of these can be resolved into “one right answer,” because their complexity defies the level of knowingness that could lead to one answer.

So how do we cope? We pretend. Because we’ve been taught to be afraid of not knowing, we pretend we do know. It’s pure delusion, yet every day we consistently deny “not knowing” (which admittedly can be deeply unsettling), and adopt what amounts to nothing more than opinions (our framework of “truth” can’t possibly be large enough to do better). But … we then proceed to call them facts, which we in turn feel obligated to defend, sometimes violently, against the “facts” of others, (they’re threats to our delusion). We comfort ourselves anyway; it seems we prefer a satisfying un-truth to an un-satisfying (incomplete) truth. The thinking goes: “well, at least I can be sure of my opinions.” Yet while we do so, questioning stops; thinking stops; and learning stops. It’s an adaptive strategy with disastrous consequences. Perhaps my all-time favorite quote applies here, from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” [Hmm; maybe the stress we feel isn’t about how hard life is, but rather a signal that trying to honor bad lessons is futile.]

What’s the path forward (or out)? We might start by recognizing that chaos, complexity and uncertainty don’t ask for our judgments, our opinions, or for us to “fix” them. They ask us to learn from them, then respond, using our creative genius. We don’t need to know everything. (Good thing, because we can’t.) The obstacle seems to be admitting that. But holding on to our “pretend truth” as tightly as we do, it seems we’d need a catastrophic event to shake us into the kind of conscious awareness and objectivity required to consider change. So for now, how about a “soft suggestion?”

What if we could adopt “a culture of not knowing,” as an opening to curiosity and understanding – about ourselves, others, life, our planet, and even the cosmos? If we could stop to inquire within, we might notice the implications of our defensiveness, and then, very likely, begin to see and think in new ways. Perhaps we need, as Wendell Berry suggests, “a language of ignorance,” one that isn’t oriented toward blame, shame or guilt, but rather toward acceptance, openness and learning. What if we could actually learn about all we think we know, but don’t: secrets of the universe, the magic of consciousness, the mystery life is, the depths of our humanness, how to live together on this planet both peacefully and sustainably?

If we began to see and think this way, our conversations would change, too. We could once again speak with one another, in dialogue. Dialogue is a two-way conversation, conducted in an environment of respect, reverence and reciprocity, aimed at understanding and learning through deep listening. (How many of those have you had, or even seen, lately?) Conversations like these are impossible in a world that denies the objective reflection upon which they depend.

Exercise: Embracing Not Knowing, Part 1: Stop what you’re doing a few times each day; recall situations from the course of the day where you may have felt a “signal of your not-knowing-ness.” Habituated as we are, you may not have even noticed at the time; herein lies the value in this replay exercise. Look back (now) and see what was going on (then). See if you can notice, in replay, what you saw/thought/felt then. When you didn’t know something or weren’t sure, did you notice? If you did, how did you respond? (did you notice but deny, step back and think and learn something new, or react emotionally?) Here’s a simple example: “My boss asked me to do ‘xyz.’ I didn’t tell her I had no clue how to do it, because I was afraid she’d think I couldn’t do my job. So I pretended. But now I’m even worse off, because she thinks it’s going to get done, but I don’t have a clue how. Looking back now, I can see how things would have changed if I’d simply been able to say, ‘Hey, can you help me figure out what you want here, so I can make sure I deliver?’” Discovering the fear-based thoughts underneath your “not knowing” softens their constricting grasp.

Once you get more comfortable and confident in your own not knowing (and yes, claiming your not-knowing is a source of confidence), you might begin to involve others. (This is especially powerful if you manage others.) Start asking people big questions – not to bust them (because they won’t know how to answer), but to stay with them so you can explore and learn together. You may be surprised.

Embracing Not Knowing, Part 2: Claim an hour of quiet time one evening. Think about what you see as the big truths in your life. You might think of truths as ‘stances you hold,’ recognizing that your stance on a topic may differ from that held by others. For each “truth,” nameit (“I believe ….”), then ask yourself:

  • Do I hold this truth as a result of deep personal inquiry? What thinking or life experience brought me here?
  • Does my truth invite/include/accept everyone, without judgment or condition? (Or does it shield me from others?)
  • What assumptions might I be making, perhaps without my conscious awareness, that serve to support this belief on one hand, yet at the same time limit me from seeing even larger truths?
  • How might those who see the world differently answer these questions? (How did they arrive at “their” truth?)
  • If I could expand the edges of my thinking far enough to include their thinking, what dialogue might we share?

A path of maturity and peace involves learning to live with two conflicting ways of seeing without making one of them wrong. You come to this “wisdom of not knowing” through awareness and acceptance. When you get to know your fears, instead of hiding or fighting them, you discover the thinking that created them. Non-judgmental awareness of that thinking causes your thinking to change, naturally and easily. As it does, fear falls away. You find yourself asking big questions, connecting more deeply with others, creating new possibility, and trusting yourself far more.


Life lessons from nature: In nature, there’s a phenomenon called “fight or flight.” It’s a first stage response to stress in the environment, nature’s way to cope with changes that happen too quickly to allow for evolutionary adaptation. A well-known example is the lemming, a small Arctic rodent. The [highly misrepresented] story is that lemmings commit suicide by jumping off cliffs. The less dramatic, yet truthful, story is that when lemming populations grow too rapidly (as they do when conditions are favorable), they get stressed and resort to fleeing. Had the original “researcher” been a more careful observer, he’d have noticed the detail: Fleeing en masse, a whole lot of lemmings reach the edge of a cliff, and before the one in front can even say, “Oh, shit,” the one behind him pushes him over. And so on. The point is that, in times of stress, “thinking” (to the extent lemmings “think”) is hijacked by instinct.

I suspect the parallel with human response to stress is both clear and valid. Our world is becoming more unpredictable, uncertain and complex, at a rate greater than we can meaningfully adapt. We experience that as stress, too. Yet we’re endowed with a capacity lemmings don’t have – conscious awareness of our thoughts. This allows us to be aware of our environment, aware of our stress, and free to make new choices (a highly-advanced form of response). Yet we don’t often use this capacity. Why not? Have we allowed “fight or flight” to hijack our conscious thought, too?


Book of the month: Who Do We Choose To Be?, by Margaret Wheatley. Wheatley offers a wise and powerful message … simple, yet not easy … stark, yet full of hope. We need leaders, and we need to be leaders (individually), who use their influence, insight and compassion to bring people together in dialogue, to evoke the humanness in all of us, to collaborate, creating “islands of sanity in the midst of wildly disruptive seas.” She compares ours to other civilizations that have declined and/or failed, and offers a pathway to the potential in us all. A bold piece for troubling times. And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.


Download November 2018 pdf

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Pam Russell October 28, 2018 at 10:52 am

Right on, Brad!


Arianna Alexsandra Collins December 16, 2018 at 2:28 pm

As always, thank you for your insights, Brad!
As life is uncertain, nurture your community connections. It’s the ties that bind you to this life that will get you through when the seas are rough and the storms blow through.


David Collins December 16, 2018 at 10:35 pm

One of the things I like about my Buddhist practice is the aspect of not knowing and being comfortable with not knowing. When I was working for HP several years ago and giving a talk to a group of patent attorneys about a technology for which I was responsible. I was asked a question that I truly did not know the answer to. I answered “I don’t know”. I don’t remember if I added “I’ll check into this and get back to you”. If I didn’t say the added part, it is always a good idea to. Anyway, my managers got all over for me, saying that I should have come back with something, anything, even if it was BS. I lost respect for my managers that day.


Brad December 17, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Arianna, I love your comment, and the reminder about the importance of love and connection. I once heard a story that spoke of the importance of having your life be driven from the love that lives inside you. We can all “find jobs,“ but rarely do we live our lives from our inner love. The point of the story I read was that no matter what you do in life, you’ll win some and lose some. When you source your life from your love, you will always have that love to sustain you when the loss column mounts up.

David, So true. And I love having your comment posted with this newsletter, because it is a reminder of how important it is for us to continue to set boundaries around the behavior of others, based on our own inner truth, not on some external figment of somebody else’s imagination.

Thank you both.


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