How (and Why) to Slay the Certainty Siren

fork in the path

There’s a mythological creature that has plagued humanity forever. It tempts us with its seductive song, promising complete safety and freedom from worry.

This creature is the siren called Certainty. When we fall under its spell, we pursue it relentlessly, lured by the tantalizing prospect of perfect security in an uncertain world.

Unfortunately, we can never capture worldly Certainty. But that doesn’t stop us from making horrible sacrifices and committing reckless acts to catch the uncatchable. Countless human beings have caused themselves, and others, great harm in the futile attempt to make the world conform to our desire for Certainty.

Luckily, heroes specialize in slaying mythological creatures! In this article, we discuss how you can use a heroic mindset to focus on the only true form of certainty: self-certainty.

Inner Certainty vs. Outer Certainty

The basic premise is that there are two types of certainty: certainty we seek in our immediate surroundings and the world in general (“outer certainty”), and certainty in our own skills, talents, adaptability, and overall ability to overcome the challenges of life (“inner or self-certainty”).

Throughout history, we have craved outer certainty, desperate to make the world around us completely risk-free. It’s only natural that we want to be as safe and comfortable as possible; all members of the animal kingdom, humans included, seek safety. It’s a vital survival mechanism.

The problem occurs when we allow this animal instinct to bleed over into the higher human ability of logic. We delude ourselves into thinking there must be some way to make the world bend completely to our will so that we can make it perfectly safe.

Because of this desire, we’ve created gods, dogmas, ideologies, and other artificial assurances to convince ourselves we can eventually control outside circumstances. If we can just meet a particular set of criteria: if we get everyone to believe in our god, our philosophy, or our worldview we can all live in harmony.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But as we know, it’s unattainable. It’s indeed a Sisyphean task, and yet we continue to exhaust ourselves on the unachievable goal of complete outer certainty when we could be expending that energy on improving ourselves and our relations with other human beings.

In contrast to outer certainty, inner certainty (we can also call it “self” or “heroic” certainty) does not require “converting” the world to conform to your beliefs. Nor does it require seeing anyone else as inferior to you. Quite the opposite, actually: the very nature of heroism cannot be separated from the notion that others are worthy of your respect and, when possible, your assistance.

The mythic hero stories crafted by the world’s various cultures have served to teach us a valuable lesson: since the world outside us will never be completely risk-free, our only alternative is to cultivate inner certainty. We can train ourselves to be resilient and to focus on finding solutions rather than dwelling on negative circumstances.

A significant source of uncertainty is the search for the meaning of one’s life. Logotherapy, the branch of psychology created by Viktor Frankl, champions the belief that human beings are primarily motivated by the search for meaning. Where much conventional wisdom puts the meaning of life somewhere outside of ourselves to be discovered, logotherapy posits that we must be the creators of our own purpose from within.

Frankl’s philosophy is squarely in line with the teachings of heroic myth: one must consciously take control of one’s own destiny and meaning, and thereby focus on the only true source of certainty—oneself.

The High Cost of Seeking Outer Certainty

Nothing we create can every ensure total certainty in the environment we occupy. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped us from making an attempt, over and over. This is how we’ve often created Hell on Earth, because in our desperation we’ve often turned to scapegoating other people outside our ideologies, blaming them for our problems. Then, the “solution” for creating outer certainty becomes “if we can segregate or eliminate this other type of human being, everything will be better.”

You don’t need to think too hard to find examples of scapegoating others in the name of securing outer certainty. The Nazis were sure of the Aryan race’s superiority. They were certain the world would be better if the Jewish people were eradicated. The leaders of the Russian Revolution, certain of the superiority of Bolshevism, ordered the slaughter of Tsar Nicholas II, his entire family, and anyone who remained loyal to the old Tsarist autocracy.

Today, the echo chambers we create for ourselves online are virtual “safe havens,” where we can gain a false sense of security and certainty about how the world works. We find like-minded people and enter a vicious cycle, a feedback loop that only serves to confirm our thoughts, rather than to expose us to other points of view and to encourage us to engage in the healthy practice of questioning our beliefs.

In other words, if we’re not careful, we can all-too-easily fall into the certainty of the gang mentality, where we are given a worldview that provides the world with a “clean definition” at the cost of our empathy for other human beings. The eternal question of Being is taken away, in favor of an all-too-clear “us-versus-them mentality.”

Three Steps to Heroic Certainty

Here are three steps to cultivating true, heroic certainty:

  1. Acceptance of Outer Uncertainty: Remember you cannot control all the circumstances and events of the world around you. Train yourself to see the unexpected challenges of life as opportunities for growth rather than sources of frustration and disappointment. Work to understand the unexpected as potential sources of positive change rather than anxiety. Contemplate the unknown future with anticipation and hope, because you are prepared to meet whatever comes and that means there’s no need to live in fear. Above all, don’t artificially seal yourself away from the dynamism of the world for the sake of false certainty, because you’ll stagnate into cynicism and bitterness.
  2. Belief in Inner Certainty: Cultivate a habit of self-confidence through focusing on your passions and cultivating your interests and talents. Let yourself believe you are capable of conquering your problems. Trust that you have the skills to overcome what you once considered obstacles. Research has proven the genuine power of the growth mindset. Science has shown that our minds (indeed, even our physical brains) are more malleable (and improvable) than we ever thought possible.
  3. Solution Focus vs. Worry Focus: When confronted with a problem, practice slipping into a solution mindset rather than fixating on worry. Contemplation of our perceived limitations and dwelling on regrets when it comes to our circumstances paralyzes us into non-action. Immediately seeking solutions, however, keeps us rooted in the present, and plays on the strengths of our uniquely adaptable minds.

Implementing the above practices will, of course, take some work to turn them into new and positive habits. However, as with any hero’s journey, there can be no gain without facing trials. With a heroic mindset, you are more than ready for the challenge!

A version of this article was originally published at The Good Men Project.

Photo by Burst on Unsplash

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