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

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.