Certainty & Uncertainty

Humans crave certainty.

Maybe it is connected to our ability to plan ahead and grasp a longer-term perspective of our, and other’s, lives.  Maybe it is because, deeper down, we know just how fragile our existence in this world is.  The reason behind it is secondary — it is undeniable that humans, to a greater or lesser extent, desire to have control over their lives.

The Dark Knight portrays this very well, framing the villain in the film as an agent of chaos.  The Joker expresses the fact (in the movie, at least) that the ordinary person will be more amenable to a planned disaster of grave proportions than an unplanned one of lesser proportions.

More generally, it could be argued that every single invention in humanity’s history has been about insuring just a little bit more control over our surroundings.  From communication technology like iPhones, to agricultural innovations, to basic tools like knives, we have constantly sought out countless ways of decreasing the variance in our otherwise chaotic lives.  Even mundane examples easily illustrate this need, like the easing of discomfort felt after one knows why he or she is experiencing pain, even if the ‘pain itself’ has not decreased at all.

This trend extends beyond the material, to realms like religion and philosophy as well.  The concept (or, some would say, the illusion) of free will is employed to give us the sense that we have full control over the choices we make, often overshadowing the myriad people and events that have influenced us in becoming who we are.  Religions or, specifically, religious texts and the way they present God as being present in history, have created some of the most elaborate ways of explaining defeat and personal and national loss in terms of God’s displeasure with people’s conduct.

This vast array of tools is very powerful, and extremely useful when life goes as planned.  Especially in the privileged West, where so much of our lives are meant to — and often do — follow an orderly progression, from primary to secondary to post-secondary education, followed by careers, marriage, children, retirement, etc.  What happens, though, when a wrench (a tool meant to grant humans more control of their environments) is thrown into the system?  Against the backdrop of all humans have done to comfort themselves with the myth of controlling the universe in which they live (see Bereishit/Genesis 1:28), what methods have we developed to cope with the underlying reality of unpredictability all around us?

I actually think that religion, in some of its prouder moments, has exemplified such methods for us as well, even in the face of the prevailing religious need to have a complete picture of the universe and our place in it.  For me, the beauty of the halakhic system is that it can provide a framework of certainty from which I can approach the world of uncertainty.  Studying in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, prayer was a perfect example.  In a very rigid (some might say ‘cold’) liturgical framework, Orthodox Jews have three chances every day to express themselves spontaneously and from the heart, if they so choose, during the Amidah prayer.  Surprisingly, at least it retrospect, this method is very effective, if one puts the requisite time and energy into it.  Strip all ritual from one’s life, and you are left with a spiraling uncertainty accompanied by lethargy.  Too much ritual, and there is no room for the individual to flourish and express herself.

This is the true beauty of tradition.  Not a long list of unalterable objective truths to live by, but a conglomerate of wisdom and reflections on the most important moments in a human life that can be referenced when we, too, encounter the yawning abyss of uncertainty.

The fact that we all need some degree of certainty in our lives should make us pause before denigrating any ideological system, as those systems give to their adherents such a profound sense of certainty — and who are we, as fellow humans who desire certainty of our own, to besmirch another who has found his certainty?  While there are clearly differences between what some of us will allow to pacify our need for control over our lives, the common denominator is that we all need to make sense of our worlds, simplifying them, not to the point of absurdity, but to the point where we can live with them and flourish.

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