News and reviews, in hindsight.

Certainty is Not a Product

The month of January, and our search to solve the uncertain, reviewed.

by Christopher Shen — January 2016

This time last year, we had already forgotten about Ebola. Terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria would become the first in a year of many such incidents. Election results out of Greece began a new round of concerns for the euro. We stopped trusting Brian Williams. Gyms, as usual, were packed to the rafters. Entertainment, as always, was lackluster. It was cold. It would get colder.

I imagine that there are people who regard January as their favorite month, I just don’t know any of them. January isn’t a bad month in itself, it just doesn’t have a lot going for it in comparison to the months that precede it, and that’s why I think we like to focus on its one notable feature: the beginning of a new year. It’s a time for resolutions and for speculation about what the year is going to bring us. It’s our annual chance to make a big deal of not only what will happen, but also what we intend to will into happening. It’s our search for certainty, and it’s making us miserable. Miserable not simply because we’re failing to find or to realize those certainties, but because we’re so hung up on certainty in the first place. We’re not simply craving it; we’re trying to buy into it.

It’s an annoying peculiarity about the present world that, after centuries of explosive growth in our collective knowledge, essentially none of that knowledge is pertinent to what we most want to know on a day-to-day basis: What’s going to happen tomorrow? What’s going to happen this year? Will my projects work out? Will I stay healthy? Will I get better? Am I smart enough? Strong enough? And will any of that matter? Somewhere along the line, we decided to divorce those questions from the realm of general knowledge and relegate them to the fields of philosophy, spirituality, and the metaphysical, and perhaps for good reason: they’re messy, they’re personal, and they have uncertain answers. But now we’re at the point where our general knowledge has become so vast, and the progression of the various sciences so advanced, that we’re getting sucked into thinking that we’re going to figure out our personal uncertainties in the same way we’re figuring out the world. “We’re discovering new elements, curing old diseases, and making vacuums that do the vacuuming themselves. So what’s wrong with me? What don’t I know, and how do I solve it?”

Uncertainty, however, doesn’t stem from the question, “What don’t I know?” That question and its answer is just information. Uncertainty is when we ask “Why don’t I know?” Why don’t I know what I don’t know? Why don’t I know what the future holds? Why can’t I know if I’ll ever make it as a writer? Why didn’t I know that my grandfather would die from cancer? Why? Well, the answer is, “You just don’t.” But that’s an incredibly unsatisfying answer, isn’t it? It’s incredibly frustrating when your vacuum cleaner seemingly knows exactly where to go every day and you can’t remember the last time you ever had any direction of any kind. It’s a situation that just kills you. And it’s a situation that you can’t simply snap out of by saying, “Well, I just don’t know, do I?” Because that answer just doesn’t work when you’re wracked by uncertainty. It’s the rational answer to an irrational state of mind, and if you’re anything like me, that answer is going to get tossed out for a whole host of dysfunctional habits: wishful thinking, obsessing over omens, and years of escapism. It’s thinking that certainty can be summoned from within, as though it was always there. And believe me, it never was.

Just as bad, however, is seeking certainty from others, because they can’t offer it either. But it is precisely that search that is increasingly determining which American media personalities gain the most traction. We can spend all day bemoaning the endless parade of news pundits, presidential candidates, and self-help charlatans who have huge followings despite being preposterous, misinformed, maliciously informative, completely nuts, or just all of the above. But they have that following because they’re damn certain how this year will end up, and they’re saying that if you just give them a chance, you’ll get to apply that same certainty to yourself, your health, your security, and your relationships. Buy this book, vote this way, watch this show, and in exchange you’ll get assurances about the future you can’t find anywhere else.

But certainty isn’t a product. It isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that you can buy or possess, nor is it a lifestyle to adopt. Certainty is an emotion, one brought about by a flash of insight, a gut instinct, or a moment of profound transcendental revelation. And like all emotions, it passes. Trying to prolong it, or inducing it at will, is as ridiculous as trying to do the same for happiness, love, or excitement. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Whether we’re making it up in our head or turning to people who can make it up for us, we’ve fallen into the habit of attempting to alleviate our negative feelings of uncertainty by dosing ourselves with its positive opposite. It’s why the media seems so messed up, because it has geared itself to address our emotional needs rather than our intellectual ones. It’s why our elections have become so awful, because they are relating to us at our worst rather than reminding us of our best. It’s why January is a month of doubt, frustration, and failed resolutions. Because we’re trying to cure uncertainty, rather than coming to terms with it.

Last year, around March, I set out to finally slay a dragon that’s been plaguing me for years. And I failed, quite resoundingly, in large part because I was certain I was going to succeed. If uncertainty is darkness, then certainty is blindness, and perhaps that’s why it’s so pernicious. It stops us from learning about who we are, what makes us tick, and why we’re feeling uncertain in the first place. Maybe that’s why we so desperately want it to be a product, to be a mental lifejacket of sorts that keeps us floating in irrational waters. But it’s not. It’s not a product, it’s an emotion, and increasingly, it’s the emotion we feel when we don’t dare feel fear. And when we don’t feel fear, we don’t know it. And when we don’t know fear, we don’t know a part of ourselves, because fear begins with us. We can find all manner of internal and external delusions to avoid it—artificial certainty being just one of them—but there is no substitute to peering deep, looking at the darkest dragon with the widest of eyes, and asking it “What are you?” And take it from me, until you stop slaying it, you’re never going to experience the answer.

Coming up:

February: Fear is the Information — Doom on Repeat, version 2, reviewed.

March: The Color Churns Still — How to Train Your Dragon, reviewed.