There’s a beautiful song by the Indigo Girls released in 1989 that you might have heard before called Closer to Fine. The artists, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, offer some practical yet deep wisdom about how to achieve greater levels of contentment and happiness in this world. This can happen when we accept uncertainty. Yes, it might seem odd to find inspiration for living a reasonably good life from an alternative song from the 1980s, but I believe it’s perfectly fine to take inspiration from wherever and whomever we can get it.
The song Closer to Fine is about how our thirst for truth and certainty in this world can, ironically, lead us astray. We seek rock-solid answers to life’s big questions (e.g., What is the purpose of life?, Why am I here? What’s the right career path for me to pursue?) because we think this will allow us to achieve happiness and contentment. For most of us though, the belief that there are definitive answers to life’s many hard questions can lead to greater levels of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and unhappiness.
There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
Closer I am to fine – from the song, “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls
Why Do We Long for Certainty?
We are all imbued with the evolutionarily-based need to survive. If we didn’t have this need, we wouldn’t be here! This world presents us with countless challenges to our survival. As civilization has grown more sophisticated and complicated, the existential threats to our well-being have increased exponentially. Due to what is called evolutionary mismatch, we face with a myriad of threats and challenges which are foreign to us from an evolutionary standpoint. Such threats include global climate change, political conflicts, inflation, racial inequality, school shootings, getting into a good college, finding the right career path, dealing with trolls on social media, saving for retirement, and so on.
For our ancient brains, dealing with so many complicated uncertainties creates existential anxiety. We simply did not evolve to live in the world in which we now live, and we pay a price for this. Thus, we are unconsciously drawn like moths to a flame to find certainty where it does not exist.
Why would our brains do this? For one, because of evolutionary mismatch, our brains are forced to deal with challenges that they didn’t evolve to solve. Our brains take many shortcuts in the form of unconscious cognitive biases to contend with the overwhelming flood of complex information that constantly inundates us. In turn, such biases lead to their own problems because accuracy and nuance are sacrificed for the sake of expediency.
Moreover, there is inherent appeal to find certainty in the world because this makes life more predictable, controllable, and, perhaps most importantly, safe. Thus, we find ourselves attracted to people, institutions, and systems who/that claim to have THE answers: religions and religious leaders, gurus, philosophies, books like The Secret, politicians, political pundits, and so on. We also look to horoscopes, palm readers, clairvoyants, mediums, tea leaves, tarot cards, and the stars to find guidance, answers, and comfort. We are even drawn to bold claims about diet, exercise, health, and longevity that promise quick and/or certain remedies for all of our ailments of body and soul.
The Problem with Certainty
Our quest to find certainty, security, and comfort in this complex and dynamic world runs headlong into a major problem. This world does not fit neatly into our ideas about it. The nature of the world is change, and is not beholden to our desires, wishes, or views. We cannot impose our static views onto an ever-changing, complicated world. It is just as a picture cannot capture the flowing nature of a river or the waves rolling into the shore.
“All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is” – quote of unknown origin often attributed to the Buddha
Within Buddhism, much of our suffering is caused when we do not think and act in accordance with reality. In this way, it can be said that suffering is the natural result when we impose certainty on a world that is inherently ever-changing. The two simply do not fit together. Stoic philosophy and Taoism also extol the importance of striving to live in harmony with the way the world works.
“Keep constantly in mind in how many things you yourself have witnessed changes already. The universe is change, life is understanding.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
As we try to impose certainty on this world, we become rigid and inflexible. We try to “force the fit.” Thus, people who don’t accept our religious views are heretics who will burn in hell, those who don’t subscribe to our political points of view are idiots and/or enemies, and so on. Our political gridlock, toxic levels of polarization, religious wars, genocides, racism, sexism, and all manner of atrocities and suffering are caused by rigidly imposing certainty upon change and complexity.
“Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life.” – Lao-tzu, The Tao Te Ching
Why Accept Uncertainty?
Without question, the nature of the universe is change. We are a part of this universe and so we are change as well. This is the “being” part of us as human beings. This insight is captured by the popular quote from Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps into the same river twice. For it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”
Much unnecessary suffering comes from living in disharmony with the universe, which includes trying to impose rigidity, certainty, and predictability upon an inherently ever-changing world. The reality is that there is not one definitive way to view reality. In order to become “closer to fine,” we need to learn to accept and embrace uncertainty through being more flexible so that we are living in greater harmony with the universe. As martial artist Bruce Lee advocated, we use “no way as way.”
In a manner of speaking, we gain clarity by accepting ambiguity. As human beings who evolved to change and adapt, we iterate our beliefs and actions based upon acquiring new information and observing outcomes. Somewhat paradoxically, our path to greater contentment and happiness in life comes from internalizing the reality that, as in the Indigo Girls’ song, there is “more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line.”