The following is a magnificent piece of writing by a man named Brian Hendricks. I stumbled upon this after listening to a lecture given by KT Tunstall a few months ago at Oxford University. The essay inspired her to write a song with the same title. Today — Thanksgiving 2016 — this is what I’m thankful for.
“Doubt is not a pleasant situation, but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire
People with missing children. Children without parents. People without food or water. There are many who are destroyed by not knowing what the future holds. For those of us more fortunate, the beauty of uncertainty is that it motivates us to seek certainty. We are compelled to replace doubt with conviction, to replace confusion with clarity, to be more fearful of old ideas instead of new ones. Nothing is more disparaged than the person who is lost, hesitant, and anxious. Yet the true path to fulfillment comes from these conditions. Uncertainty becomes truly beautiful when connected with the certainty that there is a better life beyond the life that is known. The artist, scientist, entrepreneur, athlete, and traveler: all embrace uncertainty as their muse. What is going to happen next is more enticing than what is happening now. The thrill of anticipation, the mystery of the unknown, the open road, mistakes as portals of discovery, the inevitability of change, purpose from chaos, questions leading to answers, failure as the threshold of knowledge.
All of these conditions inform the life of the adventurer, the human being who is engaged in becoming. The beauty of uncertainty is that it prepares us to embrace life in the face of death. Allows us the strength to deal with the freedom to choose. To willingly exchange the fear of uncertainty for the security of certainty is to admit defeat. To surrender to the fear of actually living your life. As T.S. Eliot observed, “Where is the life we have lost in living?” Nothing moves forward except by the craving to seek certainty from uncertainty.
“For without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk, the greater the faith.”
— Soren Kierkegaard
We are prone to fear. The world is a mass of confusion. Traditions are ridiculed. Mythologies are forgotten. True freedom is a curse. Natural disasters are unnaturally common. Celebrities have replaced heroes. Ideals have been replaced by images. Many are running scared and only too willing to embrace the forces that offer a respite from the winds of change. What can we believe in? God, country, ourselves? What can we be certain about? Death, decay, oppression? What are we willing to risk, defend, support and dream? What would we like to be certain of? Lifespan, love life, finances, and security? Can we gain anything without giving something up? Is there faith without risk? If you knew without question what was going to happen next, would there be any real satisfaction in it happening? The greater the risk, the greater the faith. Embracing uncertainty is to say yes to life: to say yes to the death and destruction, the success and failure, the tragedy and the triumph. Lord Byron said that the great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain. The beauty of uncertainty is that it allows us to overcome our fear. It allows us to take risks so we can experience faith. A life without uncertainty is the end of the imagination; the death of the imagined; the negation of faith.
“I think the main reason I travel, if I were to sum it up in one word, is for ambiguity.” — Pico Iyer
Why are the least informed so certain and the thinkers so full of doubt? Our culture is a business and we are the shareholders. We strive to maximize our profits, to eliminate ambiguity in favour of certainty. What is the film we all want to see, what is the book we all want to read, who is the icon we all want to emulate? How can we be different yet all be the same? Amuse us. Distract us. Assure us. Guide us. Tell us what to do and how to do it.
Let Martha Stewart design our kitchen, Dr. Phil will raise our kids, Dreamworks will provide our narratives, and ad execs will supply our thoughts. Where can we even find true ambiguity in a world of invented certainty? Who’s dreams are we dreaming? We travel to experience ambiguity. To remind ourselves of the diversity of landscape and the spontaneity of existence. To feel the sheer exhilaration of a new experience. To remind ourselves of the endless possibilities that our lives consist of. The journey we are on is fraught with difficulty. No one here gets out alive. We are constantly challenged to perform, to succeed, to overcome our difficulties and win the race. We come to realize that performance itself answers the challenge. That life is ultimately defined by our difficulties. The race is won in the opportunity to run it. The beauty of uncertainty is that it is ambiguous and ambiguity encourages us to create, search, explore, and travel. As one of us once said, “When you are tired of change, you are weary of life itself.”
“It’s one thing to be certain. But you can be certain and be wrong.”
— John Kerry, addressing George W. Bush in during a 2004 presidential debate.
The world has never been more chaotic despite assurances that the situation is under control. The only thing under control is the manipulation of perception. Global warming is a scare tactic. None of George’s friends are getting rich from Middle East oil. Freedom is America’s greatest export. Baghdad will get its Disney World. Let’s not quibble over details like weapons of mass destruction. Osama Bin Laden? Axis of Evil? Crusades? The American Presidential election was a victory of certainty over uncertainty. Tell us what we want to hear and we will follow you. The message was there is little beauty in uncertainty. That uncertainty is ugly, and dangerous, and destructive. We must have resolve. We must kill or be killed. You are either with us or against us. Confusion is a luxury we can’t afford. The religious right is never wrong. Give us your fear of the unknown and we will turn it into the security of the known. Go back to sleep where you will be safe under the intoxication of your agreeable illusions. If you shine a flashlight in a dark room there is light everywhere the flashlight is pointed. We live in a world wherein we are compelled to follow whoever is handling the flashlight. We ignore the reality of the darkness that exists wherever the light is absent. The darkness is the uncertainty and the light is the beauty that helps us overcome it. But we need to hold the flashlight ourselves and recognize that the darkness exists. The people who are selling us certainty can indeed be wrong. As Goethe said, “When ideas fail, words take over.” The beauty of uncertainty is it allows ideas to cultivate and grow and hopefully transcend the tyranny of the untested word.
“Man can be destroyed but not defeated.” — Ernest Hemingway.
The recent tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. Thousands killed, millions displaced. Entire villages gone forever. Unparalleled uncertainty. Where is the beauty to be found here? How limited our vocabulary becomes when confronted with the often devastating forces of nature. All perspective is lost. Better to remain mute than to scream obscenities at the storm. But perhaps the beauty is to be found in the stories of the survivors? In the stories of people helping people. The rich helping the poor. Christians embracing Muslims. Warships dispensing medicine instead of missiles. Already we have witnessed one of the most humane and heroic aid operations in world history. Unprecedented acts of compassion and generosity. Combatants have paused in their battlefields to reflect on their own inadequacy in killing fellow human beings in comparison to this subtle shift of the earth’s weight. Will this holocaust of uncertainty lead to the resolve necessary to eliminate the disparity between the first world and the third? Will we gain the wisdom required to create a future rather than add to the destruction?
Hopefully, we will stay reminded of how fragile life can be. Learn to appreciate what we have, instead of what we think we need. Realize we are all in this together. Recognize the unparalleled beauty that comes out of unparalleled devastation. Our thoughts and tears go out to those who have lost everything and everyone. There is no one to blame. We can only accept the uncertainty and continue on.