If given a choice between confusion and clarity, hard to imagine that there’d be one among us who would choose confusion over clarity.
Yet, the discovery of truth begins from the uncertainty of not knowing.
Counterintuitive. Or so you would think. Yet a cardinal principle of the Yaqui Indian shaman, Don Juan, the main protagonist of the books by the cultural anthropologist, Carlos Castaneda.
Here’s Don Juan on clarity:
Once a man has vanquished fear, he is free from it for the rest of his life because, instead of fear, he has acquired clarity—a clarity of mind which erases fear. By then a man knows his desires; he knows how to satisfy those desires. He can anticipate the new steps of learning and a sharp clarity surrounds everything. The man feels that nothing is concealed.
And thus he has encountered his second enemy: Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds. It forces the man never to doubt himself. It gives him the assurance he can do anything he pleases, for he sees clearly into everything… But all that is a mistake; it is like something incomplete. … he will fumble with learning until he winds up incapable of learning anything more. His second enemy has just stopped him cold from trying o become a man of knowledge. He will be clear as long as he lives, but he will no longer learn, or yearn for, anything.
Clarity traps precisely because it empowers, reassures, and validates—feelings that create Certainty. And, Certainty feels good, and what feels good, we cling to. Contrast that with Confusion and doubt (uncertainty)—discomfiting emotions fueled by anxiety and fear. No one wants to feel the ground beneath them tremble. We seek solidity. That way life becomes manageable, secure, and predictable. When the expected does what we expect, we know who we are and where we stand.
You get sucker punched by a pandemic… or get blindsided by a deadly diagnosis… or a loved one dies who wasn’t supposed to… or you get downsized… or the person you love decides to love someone else… or the leaders you trust lie to you… or you discover that the false truth you’ve been holding on to turns out to be the Big Lie… or just fill in any number of “unfair” possibilities that can shatter your equilibrium.
You embrace uncertainty. That’s right. You stop hanging on to the illusion of certainty, while you blindly wait for life to teach you an indisputable truth: nothing lasts forever and what you believed to be certain on Monday may very well be shattered by Tuesday.
And thus, begins wisdom. Because the path to wisdom always begins just at that moment when clarity loses its luster; certainty starts trembling; and doubt creeps in.
Growing up in suburban Long Island in the Fifties, nothing seemed to change. Dad worked; Mom stayed home; kids did homework after school and then you played until dinner, which was always at six. No such thing as a “catch as catch can” or go with the flow menu. No room in the Fifties for questions like “What’s for dinner?” You always knew: Spaghetti on Monday, lamb chops on Tuesday, chicken on Wednesday, meatloaf on Thursday, etc., etc., etc. You get the idea. Looking back now, it seems like the purpose of life in the Fifties was to fossilize life to eradicate uncertainty. Perhaps it was a post-war reaction to the terror of living through four years of hell.
But life has a way of scorning our shoulds and mocking our expectations. Take the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, an inseparable part of New York’s DNA since the 1880’s. That is until May 28, 1957, when management decided to piss on tradition and to laugh at loyalty. Without so much as a whisper of an apology, they abandoned us New Yorkers for the more lucrative West Coast markets.
As if that wasn’t enough, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. How could that be? America was the most technologically advanced nation in the world. We deserved to be first; we were supposed to be first; we expected to be first. We lost. And when you lose you can either give up in despair, or you can ask, “Why? Why did we, who were supposed to be first, who promised the nation we’d be first, who were convinced we’d be first, why weren’t we?”
And what happens when you grow up with the illusion/absolute certainty that your parents and all their liberal, pro-civil rights friends and neighbors are champions for equality and integration only to discover at age twelve that they had signed an exclusionary clause making it “illegal” to sell their homes to Blacks? Call that a Triple Double for Shattered Illusions.
I don’t think I have to squeeze more examples from my life or yours to convince any of us that life’s a crap shoot, and at any given time, any one of us could be rolling snake eyes, threes, and twelves. The crazy thing about an addicted gambler is that when he’s on a roll, throwing sevens and elevens, his dopamine-saturated brain believes it will last forever. He’s high on the fantasy that his luck is eternal.
Ok, so let’s say I made my point: We’re all dust in the wind including the three-dimensional objects that surround us, our lofty attitudes and false beliefs that sustain us, our supposedly trustworthy institutions that govern us, and those in power who habitually let us down.
A rather bleak outlook on life, don’t you think?
Yes, if you’re attached to the need for certainty and clarity. Yes, if you’re terrified by not having answers.
No, if you understand that the gray area of confusion and doubt is the fertile soil for growth and creativity. No, if you understand that from not knowing, questions emerge, assuming you can let yourself sit with the discomfort that confusion creates. But here’s the good news: It’s hard wired into creation that chaos precedes creation. Open the first chapter in Genesis and you’ll see that the astonishing process of creativity bursts forth following a period of chaotic emptiness abounding with spirit and potential.
It’s from the terrifying emptiness of doubt that we begin to question our beliefs, our attitudes, the choices we’ve made in life. Confusion leads to renewal and rebirth as we shift the responsibility for our lives from others to ourselves. Transformation occurs the moment we realize we’ve been granted the power and responsibility to shape our lives—to choose truth over falsehood, love over fear, integrity over expediency.
The Giants and Dodgers might abandon us, our religious leaders might be hypocrites, our leaders might be self-serving narcissists but, in the end, we get to choose either to succumb to despair and helplessness or to recognize that in the transitory and uncertain world in which we live, Love and Truth remain as they always have—eternal values that are the source of meaning and purpose in life.