There is a genre of op-eds/”guest essays” that I generally don’t read: the “what my [parent/relative/meanest boss] taught me about [life/politics/persistence/etc.] It isn’t that this particular approach to self-help isn’t interesting or useful–these reflections are often quite thoughtful. But given the number of information resources we all receive, most of us need to pick and choose the materials we actually access and consider, and my priorities are elsewhere.
I made an exception to my usual practice a week or so ago, however, for a guest essay titled “What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Living.” I’m glad I did, because the “lesson” the author conveyed really applies to a great deal more than our individual lives; it is directly relevant to the contemporary political environment.
The author of the essay reported that, as she was trying to come to terms with her father’s imminent death, she had asked her wife about the wife’s experiences as a social worker.
What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.
She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.
“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.
This conversation struck me as profound, in ways that go well beyond the prospects of a loved one’s life or death.
I have long been convinced that living in the modern world requires one absolutely essential skill above all: the ability to tolerate ambiguity– a recognition that authentic “bright lines” are rare, and that large areas of our lives will necessarily be lived in shades of gray.
The inability to cope with moral and political ambiguity explains so much of what is wrong with today’s politics. Americans today are faced with questions that don’t have easy or obvious answers. That reality goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of bizarre conspiracy theories–such theories provide “answers” to people who find the lack of certainty intolerable. That inability to abide uncertainty also helps explain the evident need of so many people for identifiable “bad guys.”
The need for certainty partly explains the “reasoning” of people who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good–either X is without fault, or he is unworthy of support, no matter how much worse Y might be. Their discomfort with nuance and complexity requires an “either/or” world–not one in which progress is incremental and white knights rare.
In a very real sense, America’s political parties have sorted themselves on the basis of tolerance for ambiguity: today’s Democratic Party, whatever its faults and failures, grapples with and argues about the world’s complex realities, while the GOP responds to that complexity with “certainties” that have either been discredited by repeated real-world evidence or invented out of whole cloth.
What the Republican Party does understand is that, in a world that is complicated and devoid of certitudes, scapegoats are essential.
Are there several interrelated causes that are thought to contribute to California’s wildfires? Too complicated; it must be Jewish Space Lasers. Do job openings available to me require skills my parents’ generation didn’t need? People of color willing to deploy those skills are being brought across the border to replace me. Are my children embracing strange new ideas that are at odds with what I was raised to believe? It’s attributable to a “woke” culture that accepts same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
See? There are clear answers…They just aren’t rooted in (or even in the vicinity of) reality.
Later in the essay, the author addressed that all-important but elusive ability to live with uncertainty.
There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.
I would go further than “buoyancy.” I would identify the ability to function thoughtfully and purposefully in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world as absolutely essential to life in the 21st Century.