The Hell of Certainty

The Hell of Certainty

My hope, in responding to my friend’s critique, has been to call the reader’s attention to the possibility that the very institutions we trust to prevent chaos are actually the cause of it. We think we must control the indefinite future, via the authority of instituted law, when in fact the future cannot be controlled. As a result of that misguided effort, our minds have gotten wrong virtually everything else about life. Our most problematic error occurred when men elevated the authority of the written word over that of the human spirit. In doing so, men superseded the authority of the sisterly bonds that naturally maintain order among humans, by placing themselves in control.

It is problematic, also, that we civilized beings find meaning in trying to establish future certainty, when the very certainty we seek destroys meaning. The well-known humanist philosopher, Eric Fromm, expressed a view that parallels my own when he said, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” But, in his book, The Art of Loving, he seems to contradict himself, by trying to make love a certainty. He says, “Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision.”

Here, he is acting as though he were a spokesman for institutions. By claiming that love is intentional, not a feeling, he is saying that we are rational beings who can decide to love and to promise love, not feeling beings to whom love comes unbidden, and leaves the same way. He is saying that, by the force of reason, alone, we can control love. In saying this he aligns himself with every institution in existence by ignoring the significance of feelings—particularly, the significance of the fact that feelings change. He implies that, if we are true to our wedding vows, we can make love a certainty. But, if certainty blocks the search for meaning, then can love have meaning if it is a certain?

Indeed, how can anything have meaning that is certain? Would sports events have meaning if their outcomes were certain? A Twilight Zone episode once had fun with the idea of certainty. In the protagonist’s afterlife, the Devil informed him that the punishment for his misdeeds would be that he could have anything he wanted. “Wow! That’s my punishment,” the guy exclaimed excitedly in disbelief. As the show progressed, it became evident that having anything you wanted at any moment you wanted it, or having certainty—as Fromm might refer to it—is Hell! Indeed, certainty ended up driving the Twilight Zone character crazy.

That’s how I feel about civilization. To whatever extent civilization can create certainty, it is Hell. It is the hell of living in a world where everything becomes a mindless routine, where the natural process of life, in effect, have been halted. If civilization could in fact realize its apparent goal of absolute and eternal certainty, the result would be absolute and eternal hell. But, when civilization’s attempts to create certainty inevitably fail, that too is hell. It’s just hell of a different kind, the hell of mindless chaos and destruction.

So, Hell, as I see it, is the mindlessness imposed by certainty. It is also the mindlessness to which the human spirit is driven in its inevitable revolt against any and all attempts to realize a certain world. What, then, is Heaven? Heaven is the mindfulness of living in the moment. It is the mindfulness of accepting life as uncertain. It the mindfulness of acknowledging that life’s meaning lies in its uncertainties. 

People who believe in institutions are invested in the idea of certainty. They fear the uncertainty that would result from the free expression of human emotions, and see it as the ultimate threat to life. I am on the other side. I believe that any attempt to corral emotions on behalf of certainty is the ultimate threat to life. Philosophically, this puts me about as far apart from the rest of the world as possible, which might explain why many find it difficult to accept my views. Indeed, at times I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness.

An excerpt from Take Us Home, Girls!

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