On Certainty

I remember being at a party, an uncomfortable one (but most parties are uncomfortable to me) and a man saying to me and a friend I came with, “Hey, I remember you from high school!”  I was embarrassed to not remember him at all, and as he waxed on nostalgically about a time and place that are dim for me, it occurred to me that memory is an uncertain thing.  This man went on to talk about some barn “where all the parties were” and kept asking my friend and me for confirmation.  We couldn’t give it.  I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.  I never went to parties in high school, or at least not parties like those.  So while memory is an uncertain thing, I know my own geekiness is a sure thing.  Of that, I am certain.

Beyond my life-long outsider status, I am convinced that I am certain of fewer and fewer things in life.  I know that’s just a function of age, but I also hope it’s a function of humility.  I guess we all could use a little more humility.  And, we all could use more uncertainty.  We, as a society, are so fucking certain of everything.  So sure of the space we take up, so sure of what we know, and so sure of our own opinions.

Remember the whole burkini debate recently on Facebook?  The French were cracking down on burkinis on French beaches, and a hue and cry went up that the treatment of those women wearing burkinis was outrageous.  They had a right to wear whatever they wanted.  Mostly, on my liberal leaning Facebook page, people were horrified.  What were the French doing?  Then a friend of mine said, “Do I really need to have an opinion about this?  I feel like it’s a lot more complicated then what we’re seeing.”  Of course she is right.  A lot of the French revolution, as my dad pointed out to me, was about the power of religion in French society.  Things like this are deep seated and indeed, complicated.  There is history there that we are forgetting, or never knew in the first place.  Plus, there is Islam, which is also complicated and of which perhaps in the West we are quite ignorant about.  Plenty of Muslim feminists have spoken out against the liberal West’s sudden quiet when it comes to the subjugation of women in Islamic societies.

So it’s complicated.  So maybe we don’t know shit.

There are things I care about that I have to admit, I don’t know shit about.  Take climate change.  I start to talk about it, the science of it, and I have to stop myself mid-stream.  When I start talking about it, it’s like gumballs falling out of a gumball machine.  I can’t stop myself, but I know I should.  I don’t even think I could explain the concept of global warming and greenhouse gas if I had to.  I am too ignorant.  But I know it exists.  I know it will increasingly rule our lives.  I’m pretty certain of that, even if I have to admit my uncertainty about the rest of it.

We are certain, and rightly so, that racism exists in our society.  We are certain that it is a bad thing.   We are less certain of who is a racist, as the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her book, Americanah:

“In America, racism exists, but racists are all gone.  Racists belong to the past.  Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era.  . . . Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters” (Adichie, 390).

We are certain it is not us, right?  I can’t be a racist, I’m a good person.  And somewhere in the ether, we hear the echo:  It is us.  It is us.  It is us.

It is hard to be uncertain.  Certainty is more comfortable, to be sure.  But perhaps when we are so certain, we are denying the humanity of others, and denying the humanity of ourselves.  Warts included.

We want to be certain of people.  Who and what they are.  We want to be able to say, “Oh, so and so is like this.  They are that.”  But that denies a person complexity, and complexity, thou art human.

Certainty shuts down argument.  Certainty shuts down conversation (unless it’s one of those showing off, one-up-man-ship kind of conversations).  Certainty shuts down avenues of approach.  We stop listening.  And no, I’m not talking about the election  I’m not talking about doing more “listening” to white supremacist views.  No.  Some things need to be shut down.  Some things need to be stood up to, and stared down.  Some things are too dangerous to tolerate.

I have been very fortunate in my life in a lot of ways.  Perhaps the grandest part of that fortune is the certainty I have in the love of my parents.  They love me, and I know it.  I love them, and I hope they know it.  I’m getting all cheesy on you here, but I’m saying this to illustrate a point:  If we are to be certain about something in our lives, let it be love.  It is necessary to be certain of the love we have for others and the love others have for us.  Therein lies a lot of pain, and that pain, I think, leads to a lot of the world’s ills. I’m not being new in saying this.  Mother Theresa once said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”  I think there’s something to that.

The love I have for my family and the love my family has for me has always been my foundation.  The bedrock that makes up who I am.  I am increasingly uncertain about things in life, but of that, I am certain.  And I think that’s the only thing I need to be certain about.