Getting rid of certainty

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Leo Tolstoy: "War and Peace" and wisdom.

Mike Thau has a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University and is the founder of Thau yoga

I used to be very sure of myself concerning every problem that the television, newspapers, and magazines told me was plaguing my region, country, or species.

I used to act as if I believed - to be honest, I actually think I did believe - that if I were given power over mankind, all of its problems would be solved, if not instantly, then pretty quickly.

No mistakes, no learning curve. I would get it all right the first time with no important errors.

Basically, though I didn't realize it at the time, in my mind I was someone with the wisdom of a god, tragically (for the world's sake) trapped in a mortal man's relatively powerless frame. So, of course, anyone who disagreed with me about any of the important issues of the day was a target for my ridicule and scorn.

Eventually, thanks to my study of literature and philosophy (in particular Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and yogic philosophy), I started to force myself to reflect on how many times in the past I'd been flat-out wrong about very important matters when the facts were right before my eyes (failed romantic relationships were, and continue to be, an inexhaustible gold mine here).

And I began to see that, even if I happened to be right about the solution to some pressing global problem or other difficult question involving millions of people and centuries of time, which I'd only heard about on TV and in random articles I come across written by people I didn't know and which I didn't read all that carefully and which may, for all I know, be riddled with errors - I wasn't entitled to any certainty. And, of course, I was thus even less entitled to deride, ridicule, and curse at those who disagreed with me.

Thanks to philosophy, I learned, not only was my certainty undeserved, but I also needed to actively counteract it.

Along the way, something else became clear to me: If you want to convince someone they're wrong about something, short of insulting one's mother or some other beloved object, the absolute worst thing you can do is to insult one's position or self. So what was I doing all those times when I - a being whose senses aren't 100 percent reliable and who has made countless blunders about the most important and basic matters staring him in the face - sat and judged others' opinions concerning literally the very genesis, nature, and fate of mankind? Judged them as if I were a jealous and vain god.

I thought I was doing something grand and ultrarational, participating in a debate of the most urgent importance and furthering the interests of my side, or some such thing. But, in reality, all those times I felt inclined to vociferously deride someone or something I disagreed with, I was really doing something quite different, something more akin to one angry dog barking at another.

Of course, the comparison is insulting to dogs, since an angry dog never does what I did. He never makes himself ridiculous by imagining that he has the knowledge of a god or by mistaking the violence emerging from his mouth for rational discourse.

I can't say that I've entirely erased this tendency toward an ugly kind of certainty, but it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Now, when my head starts going in that direction, I notice it pretty quickly and start the process of counteracting it. I remind myself of how small and fallible I am, so that I can get back to that state of humility without which reason is impossible.

I may not yet have the dignity of an angry dog, but I'm working on it.

mike@thauyoga.com