On certainty

Certainty is the idea on my mind lately. I’ve been sitting with questions like: Can we ever be certain? Are some people simply more self-assured than others? Do we really “know when we know”? What do these things mean? When it comes to a relationship, a job, a place to live, there are scores of people who say, I just knew it was right. No question. Phrases of empowering certainty that can be anxiety-inducing for those who seem to be lacking it.

I struggle with the idea that we can know something for sure. Maybe some people can, but I tend to think I’m just not that kind of person. A person who can be 100% certain on a subject or a decision. Maybe once in a blue moon the feeling of certainty will strike me, but typically, I’m stuck in the gray space of no-man’s land. I can see the other side. Convince myself of what’s on the right and of what’s on the left. So when people tell me that they knew the answer completely, no doubts. I start to wonder: is something missing then? Am I in the wrong relationship/place/career/— you name it? If I don’t have this sense of certainty that other people seem to have, is there something out there that’s better, just waiting for me? Am I missing out?

Cheryl Strayed wrote about the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. She spoke about the concept that there are always other versions of our lives never lived, because we chose one way, not the other. In the act of choosing one thing, we simultaneously let go of the alternative — alternate realities, parallel worlds live on, un-lived. Eventually, all of our choices pile up to create the life we did live. And that, precisely, is the anxiety-inducing part. Because we all want lives we can look back on and feel proud of. So when we consider that one choice can make such a profound difference, decisions suddenly become a daunting prospect.

Yet choices are unavoidable. Whether we like it or not, on some level, we must choose and move forward. Even choosing not to decide at all, is, when it comes down to it, a choice. And if we spend too much time focused on the minutiae of every decision, every avenue we could potentially explore, won’t the whole picture get lost in the process?

It might serve us to remember that in a world where nothing is permanent, certainty is also not a concrete entity. With time, the confidence behind every clear-eyed decision dissolves into the reality of what unfolded. A divorce is a product of a once happy couple who chose to spend the rest of their lives together. A career that made us once feel so fulfilled and sure-footed can eventually leave us empty and unsatisfied. Fashion choices that made so much sense in the moment, make us say, “what was I thinking?” only a few years later. Even certainty, if we can manage to grasp it, will change and weather with time, with the other choices that come to pass after. Certainty, too, is momentary.

So whether we can be one of the certain or not, we are all jumping from choice to choice. Learning, evolving and adjusting course. So maybe then what matters is feeling good about where we’re headed in the moment. Because if we can’t feel ok about our current reality, then we will be stuck in a land of what ifs and maybe I shoulds. And it’s this we have to come to terms with. If we cannot be one of the certain, we have to get comfortable with the questions that will always be there lingering in the background, deciphering between the ones that speak to something that needs changed vs. the ones that lure like phantom lives. We must take stock of where we are and where we want to go and accept that perhaps certainty will come or that perhaps each step forward will simply bring us closer to the questions.

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