Learning to Live With Uncertainty

One of the biggest challenges I faced as I grew into adulthood was learning how to deal with the fact that the word is full of uncertainty. I remember being a kid and being obsessed with the rules of games, with making things fair, with carving everything into this and not-this. From what I know of such things, that’s a pretty standard developmental stage for children. And one of the conundrums of adulthood is having to make decisions when we don’t have all of the relevant information.

Of course, one way to approach that is to try to gather as much data as possible beforehand, but while that’s often useful, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes, the information isn’t available. Or you don’t know everything that will be useful before you have to make your choice. Or there’s so much beyond your control that all you can do is take a chance. That creates a lot of uncertainty, which I find causes me to feel anxiety and sometimes fear, and that can make things even harder. Spider Robinson wrote that worrying is like alcohol: a little bit makes you smarter, a little bit more makes you stupider. That’s certainly been my experience- a little anxiety helps me look for information and answers, but much more than that just gets in my way.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been discovering ways to live with the fact that uncertainty is inevitable, which is a difficult edge to lean into. And the reward is that when I’m faced with a decision and I know I don’t have all of the information that I want, I’m a lot less likely to be paralyzed. Since this has been on my mind lately, I was really struck by this article about evangelical Christians and how some of them are trying to reconcile their beliefs about Adam & Eve and the research on the human genome that shows that there’s no way that we all descended from two people. I’m not expecting to see this resolve anytime soon, given that there are a few Catholics who are still insisting that Galileo was wrong.

But what really stood out for me was the very end of the article:

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow [a religion professor] at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world.”

One of the reasons fundamentalism of any variety has such a strong hold is that it appeals to our desire for certainty in a scary world. That makes it especially appealing when times are uncertain. And the more we invest our time, emotions, energy, and money into a belief structure, the harder it can be to admit that we were in error. In fact, we might even ignore or deny the existence of information that challenges our beliefs, rather than experience the uncertainty that arises when we acknowledge that the dogma is wrong, or at least, incomplete.

To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous. -Chinese Proverb

But the irony is that I (and many others) have more respect for the person who recognizes that they’ve been holding onto mistaken ideas and doctrines than I have for someone who clings to them out of fear of admitting an error. It takes a strong ego and an adult mindframe to be able to say, “I made this decision based on the information I had at the time and where I was in my life, and now, I have new information so I’m going to change my mind.” It takes a lot of courage to let go of one thing in order to free your hands up to hold onto whatever comes next. In my opinion, the folks who do that are much more worthy of respect than the ones who cling to something that they don’t dare let go of in the face of clear contradictory evidence.

All of this comes up over and over again in my work with people around sex. Thanks to abstinence-only fear mongering, I’ve spoken with folks who are petrified of having sex because there’s no way to ever be 100% safe. I’ve heard people talk about their difficulties with sharing their fantasies or desires with partners because they’d rather stick with what they have than take the risk of being rejected. I’ve watched people struggle with questions of their identity for months or years because letting themselves and others see their genuine selves scared them. And I’ve seen people shy away from experiencing the amazing range of pleasure and joy available to them because they were worried about what it would mean if they did, or thought that if they tried X, they’d slide all the way down the slippery slope.

In my experience, the best way to change that is to develop some skill at living with uncertainty. Trying new kinds of sex, or new ways to talk with a partner, or simply admit to yourself that you have the desires you do- all of these become easier when you practice living with the uncertainty that the world offers.

The more I’ve learned to accept that the most I can strive for is to make the best decision possible with the information available at the time, the easier it has become to apply that to my sex life. As I find ways to deal with the fact that there are always unknown factors, and as I get more practice at letting go of the familiar and moving towards something new, the more freedom I have when those kinds of situations come up around sexuality. And the more those skills get woven deeply into my life, the more they become really useful habits instead of something I have to think about each and every time.

We will never live in a world of 100% certainty, no matter how much some people seem to want to make it happen. So whether your goal is to improve your sex life, to create better relationships, or simply to feel more at ease, try looking for ways to be ok with the uncertainty around you. You just might find that the scary parts are sometimes balanced out by the surprises that life brings your way. Not to mention that you’ll have more room for delicious sex.

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One Response so far.

  1. bloomhero says:

    I’m quite biased, but I feel science in particular, (but a liberal education in general) helps steel against how personal and frightening uncertainty is often taken to be. I studied physics and uncertainty is now to me so much more beautiful than the alternative.

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