The Safety and Danger of Certainty

“How many times is the truth that you take to be true, just truth falling apart at the same speed as you, until it all comes away in a million degrees, and you’re just a few pieces of falling debris?” —Josh Ritter, “Hopeful”

What if I told you certainty was a prison, and we lock our beliefs and our selves and our lives inside of it? What if I told you our one chance for redemption is rotting away within the prison cell of our certainty? Would you rattle the bars and clamor for a jailbreak?

certainty and belief

Photo Credit: requiemm via Compfight cc

When I was a beginning therapist at Penn State University—back when I had as much cocky self-assurance as I had hair—I had all sorts of misconceptions about psychotherapy and people. Early on, I was handed a diagnostic manual and the assumption that everyone who comes to therapy is fragile, uncertain, and full of doubt.

That assumption is gone (along with my hair).

Over the years, I’ve discovered many of us end up in therapy because we don’t doubt anything.  Over the years, I’ve realized certainty can be awfully dysfunctional. Safe, yes. Secure, yes. But it can tear up a life—and a world—one dogmatic belief at a time.

The Need for Uncertainty

To be human is to hold belief. We all hold beliefs about ourselves, about others, about the world, about the universe and God and every wondrous and horrible thing.

But we also tend to organize our lives around avoiding conflict and danger and discomfort. And existing within unquestionable beliefs makes everything feel quite safe, orderly, and stable: I know who I am, I know who you are, I know how this world works, and I understand what existence is all about.

Certainty feels so good.

Until it doesn’t.

Until our beliefs stop resonating with the reality we encounter. Until they leave us unprepared for the vicissitudes of life. Until they begin to crumble and the panic sets in or the depression swallows us. Until we realize our certainty has left us isolated and alone. Until we realize certainty is about not budging an inch, but life is about growth and transformation and redemption.

Over the years, as a therapist, you realize sometimes we don’t need more answers—sometimes we need to be asking more questions:

Like, maybe my family wasn’t as perfect as I was always led to believe—or, maybe my family isn’t as bad as I’ve always made them out to be?

Maybe I’m not as broken as I thought—or, maybe I’m more broken than I thought?

Maybe I shouldn’t trust everyone—or, maybe I have to trust someone?

Maybe I need to forgive more quickly—or, maybe I need to set some boundaries and quit giving my worth away to everyone with instant reconciliation?

Over the years, you discover definitely is a place of safety and suffocation, while maybe is the place of possibility and redemption and connection.

Why Belief is Like a Bird

On a recent rainy spring morning, my son and I were looking out the window and marveling at the ability of birds to fly through rain-riddled air. I wondered aloud, “How do birds stay afloat?”

It turns out I’m not smarter than a third grader.

He told me a bird’s bones are adapted for flight—lightweight and hollow with air sacs to increase buoyancy. The bones are fragile and can withstand the stress of taking off, flying, and landing, but little else.  

Therefore, to hold a Dove for instance, you must hold it incredibly gently and with great care. You must hold it tightly enough to keep it grounded. But if you try to hold it too tightly, you will crush it and destroy it. Because it was never intended to be held. A Dove exists to fly.

I think our beliefs are like a Dove.

Gentle Beliefs and Gentle People

We must hold our beliefs gently.

We must believe. And we must embrace uncertainty. All at the same time.

Because although we hold beliefs, they were not designed to be held.

We were designed for the ground but, like birds, our beliefs were designed for the air—to flit from treetop to treetop as we chase them from below.

The most beautiful beliefs are rarely caught and grasped, constantly chased, and in the chasing they draw us into new and better places we never would have discovered while clutching them tightly in the safety of our homes.

I think this might be what many of us call faith—the chasing of beliefs through the treetops, eyes raised, looking up into a big-unfettered sky. Stumbling and tumbling into a bigger and more beautiful world than we ever imagined was possible. Tripping and falling and skinning our knees and getting back up again, because the chasing is even more important than the catching.

A people with belief like this—a people holding it gently and releasing it again into the wild—becomes a gentle people.

Because when we can hold our beliefs gently, we can hold ourselves and other people gently, as well.

A people like this become a people breathlessly chasing belief together.

Over the years, I guess I’ve decided the work of psychotherapy is complete when a client has traded in their unshakeable beliefs for a chasing-faith. When certainty about existence has given way to a chasing-faith in themselves, faith in other people, and faith in a world and a universe that is broken and beautiful and bigger than they ever could have imagined.

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Comments: You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post.                

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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “What Good is Gratitude When the World is Tearing Apart?”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Lisa Bartelt

    I get this, and you’re right, but I’ve never thought of it that way. I was holding some beliefs pretty tightly when we moved from Illinois to Pennsylvania and what I saw and experienced didn’t fit in my box of beliefs. Instead of holding on more tightly, I opened up and started asking questions. And I wonder if many a theological debate and denominational split has occurred because of beliefs held too tightly. Or maybe the older I get the more I realize that I don’t have all the answers, just a whole lot of questions that I may never answer!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lisa, There’s an interesting faith community in Ireland called ikon. They purposefully visit groups of people from other faiths so they can experience themselves through the eyes of others. They say when you become aware of how alien you look to others, then others don’t seem so alien to you. Sounds like Pennsylvania did that to you! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Learner

    I love this quote: “…DEFINITELY is a place of safety and suffocation, while MAYBE is the place of possibility and redemption and connection.” We were discussing Skye Jethani’s book, “With” in my Master’s class this morning. Skye asserts that
    we seek to mitigate our fears by exerting control over the world around us. If we can nail down our beliefs and rules to live by, we think we can control our lives (and God for that matter!). Doing this usually leads to lots of judgements, however, and certainly not freedom. MAYBE requires trust and vulnerability, so I have to let go of my control and fear. It’s scary and freeing all at the same time!

    Thanks, Kelly, for this blog. I look forward to your posts.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Love that book! Thanks for sharing your experience with it, and I’m grateful my post inspired some of the same ideas!

  • Laura

    This is one of the best vision statements I’ve every encountered. Simply beautiful. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Laura, thank you.

  • Chance Parker

    I was educated in the church to take a formulaic approach to faith, if you do ABC and believe XYZ you will be saved, but I never felt “saved”. I have come to realize over the past several years that faith is not certainty but uncertainty. If you know something, no faith is required. Faith to me now is, I don’t know nor do I need to know but I trust and believe that there is something much bigger that I am unable to grasp or understand behind all that happens in life. As the bumper sticker says “Let Go and Let God” has new meaning. As I moved away from intellectual faith to a more spiritual faith (uncertainty), I feel closer to the love of God than ever.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is beautiful, Chance. I have a post in the pipeline tentatively entitled, “More.” It may resonate with you, as well. Here’s to Bigger.

  • Sue O’Donnell

    Open hands … Open heart

  • Toma

    One of the truly great lines in one of the truly great movies, “Shadowlands” has C.S. Lewis at the end of his life say “I have no answers, only the life I live.” He did not reject certainty (the movie began with his pronouncing, “Pain is God’s megaphone to a lost and dying world.”), but having responded to the call and entering pain, he began holding to the person and not the ideas, discovering that true certainty is entering into relationship not doctrine. 1 Cor 1:9 God is faithful who has called us into the same sort of fellowship (the familiarity, the ease, the comradery, “the having a beer together and discussing nothing of importance” sort of relationship) He has with His Son.

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is so good, Toma. Thank you.

  • Jennifer Newell

    As read this my children came to mind, If you hold on too tight they will want to break free but if you hold on gently you can still provide love, guidance, help and insight but not cause them to feel suffocated. You want to encourage them not prevent them from growing into the amazing people they can be.

    My faith walk is a journey with hills and valleys. It is times of doubts and uncertainty and times of God’s true presence. For me the questioning of beliefs and faith is a good thing. I encourage questions in my life as well as my families lives. I guess it is where and whom you seek the answers from that matters most.

    I believe that all God wants is to walk this journey with us. It is the good, the bad, the unexpected, the unexplained joys, and the amazing love and friendships found along the way. With that said, I trust that God’s promises to us are certain and unchanging.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenn, I appreciate the parallel and overlaps with parenting. For me, it points out the theme of control and power. When certainty is used to maintain a sense of control, whether its over kids or beliefs, it usually has the opposite of the intended effect. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Craig

    Thank you for making you blog available in an audio format. I really like the fact that I can listen to it on the go.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I record the audio with an amazing microphone, which was loaned to me by a guy named Craig. What a coincidence. 🙂

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