Do You Need Certainty?

By Chris Chittenden

"No great deed is done by falterers who ask for certainty.”

… George Eliot (1819 - 1880) English novelist

This month we continue our series of five articles on what we term our 'core concerns'. These core concerns speak to what is centrally important to us and we have a basic need to take care of them. We move away from a perceived threat to these concerns or move towards opportunities that we assess may enhance them. These core concerns also underpin many of our stronger emotional responses and the associated habitual actions these emotions predispose.

Last edition we looked at the role of status. This time we will focus on our concern for certainty.

Let us start with a simple statement. The future for any human being is inherently uncertain except for the single fact that we will die. No matter how much we might like to believe otherwise, uncertainty is an ever present feature of the future.

Throughout history, humankind has been somewhat obsessed with challenging the notion of uncertainty. We have used the stars, tea leaves and crystal balls in attempt to see the future. One of the predicates of the scientific method is that through its use we can predict with certainty what will happen and when. However, even in the domain of science, where future events can be predicted with greater probability there is not complete certainty because there will always be risk factors that may or may not be anticipated.

There are two stances that we can take in the face of our uncertain future. We can rail against it and crave certainty or we can embrace it. These two stances lead us down very different paths in the way in which we experience life.

When we crave certainty, we seek control. We want to know that when we do X we will get Y. We plan, we keep watching to make sure things are going as we want. For those of you have been long term readers, you may remember the article on the 'control myth'. This is the idea that we can control others and it is a very appealing idea to those who want certainty. The more we want certainty, the more we push for control over as much as possible.

The challenge is that our circle of control is relatively small in relation to the concerns over which we might like to have control. Despite all the effort that people may put into seeking to create certainty, it is elusive. This tends to lead people into a mood of anxiety where they often feel the worst may happen when things do not go as expected.

Central to our ability to successfully embrace an uncertain future is the linguistic action of making an assessment. Well grounded assessments look to a balanced view of our knowledge of the past to seek to guide us into the future. The key distinction here can be seen in the difference between 'controlling the future' and 'guiding ourselves through the future'. By accepting the uncertainty of the future, we can step into it in the expectation that the unknown provides opportunity and threat. We can be open to the possibility that we may need to deal with the unexpected and be able to deal with it.

Clearly it is important to feel that we will be able to deal with an uncertain future as to do otherwise sends us back to anxiety. The keys to the core concern of certainty are to build trust in ourselves and others and to expect the unexpected.

Next edition, we will focus on the core concern of autonomy. Until then, embrace the future and what it might bring.

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© 2016 Chris Chittenden