The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was post-truth, an adjective describing “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
In the autumn of 2016, on an ordinary morning, my kids and their friends in the carpool told me all the schools in town should be closed down indefinitely because roving bands of murderous clowns were everywhere and no one was safe. They’d all heard exactly the same thing through social media, so they figured it must be true. They were genuinely terrified.
I asked them to take a breath.
I asked them to slow down and look at the world around them. They did so. They saw a typical autumn morning—sunlight slanting through leaves brightly dying, the world marching to its ancient rhythm. No clowns in sight. And yet. The world they were able to see couldn’t compete with the world they were able to Google. They still believed clowns were hiding behind every colorful tree.
I dropped them off at school and left them for dead.
Post-truth. Last year, what was actually happening around us became less relevant than what was happening inside us. Last year, our fear became our truth, regardless of our reality. Last year, facts finally and fully gave way to our Facebook fictions. The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year runner-up was coulrophobia—an extreme or irrational fear of clowns. This is not a coincidence. My kids coulrophobia was a post-truth phenomenon.
Where are the clowns?
It seems the proliferation of our technologies is accidentally producing an unprecedented proliferation of our fears. Are there things to fear in the world? Yes, absolutely. But when we know about every tragic thing happening every minute everywhere on the globe, it overwhelms our capacity to cope. Most of us can’t handle much more than the tragedies in our town—we don’t need to check the news to reach our personal limit of cancer and violence and hunger and hurt.
However, because we human beings are resilient, we are rapidly developing a way to inoculate ourselves to all of it—a psychological booster shot for coping with our fear called certainty. In other words, as the world around us feels less certain, we make the world inside of us feel more certain. We get afraid, choose a belief that will make us feel safer, and then we seek out evidence for that belief, while ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
And, in these days, the evidence we’re looking for can be found wherever we look.
Software algorithms detect what we want to see and hear and believe and then flood us with more belief-fodder than we can possibly consume. Thus, our attachment to our thoughts, feelings, and ideologies is digitally strengthened on a daily basis, as what is happening in our life slowly becomes less influential than what is happening in our feed. Ironically, in an increasingly uncertain world, it is easier than ever to develop increasingly certain minds.
Meanwhile, reality is slowly becoming an afterthought.
Where are the clowns?
Several months after the morning of the mythical clowns, I was looking forward to an afternoon of laser tag and memory-making with my kids at a local bowling alley. However, at the last minute, a crisis arose and I stayed behind to fix it, while my family left without me. It took me thirty minutes to resolve the crisis.
Laser tag doesn’t last longer than thirty minutes.
As I drove to the bowling alley, the news scroll in my head started feeding me all the words and images I wanted to consume about my bitter reality—I was the sacrificial father left behind to solve the family’s problems, while the family went on to play without him. Taken for granted. Alone. I couldn’t have been more certain about my plight. Then, I arrived at the bowling alley.
Where my family was waiting for me to play laser tag.
At that moment, I faced the choice every single one of us will face as this new year begins: do I cling to the certainty inside of me, or release it so I’m free to embrace the reality in front of me. We can cling to a post-truth 2016, or we can embrace a new Word of the Year in 2017: post-certainty.
In a post-certainty world:
you slow down instead of throwing down,
you take a breath instead of taking umbrage,
you become curious before becoming confrontational,
you settle into questions before jumping to conclusions,
and you slowly observe your fears instead of instantly believing them.
In a post-certainty world, you remember that certainty creates an echo chamber, whereas uncertainty creates the space for grace to grow. You remember that certainty usually transforms into hate and violence, whereas uncertainty is love in mental form—uncertainty is love in the shape of patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, and togetherness. Uncertainty does not delight in being right, but it rejoices in the actual truth, even when it changes our mind.
In a post-certainty world, you let a family who waited to play laser tag become your new truth.
May the year of 2017 become the year of post-certainty. May we exchange the fear in our hearts—and the certainty in our heads—for a world in which the software algorithms lose their power to blind us and the truth still has the power to teach us. Yes, this will make 2017 slightly scarier. But it will also make 2017 exceptionally more beautiful. Post-certainty.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.
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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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.