As the New Year begins to unfold, we likely have a heightened awareness of the healing power of the “new” in contrast to the destructive power of the “old.” We yearn to free ourselves from the shackles of limiting ways of being, from behavior patterns that have enslaved us for years, or that perhaps were created through choices during this last year…decisions that we now regret and the consequences of which we now resolve to change. The beginning of a new year brings with it the hope that we can become new, that our lives can be positively transformed, and we make resolutions to achieve this goal.
However, we all know how this story typically plays out, don’t we? Some of us are miraculously able to achieve and maintain significant changes throughout the year and beyond, some do sustain their commitment for impressive periods of time before succumbing to resignation, while a majority of us last a few days, weeks, or perhaps even months…if we make an attempt at all.
There are, of course, a broad range of causes that account for such outcomes; surely a lack of sufficient knowledge, available resources, and “willpower” are important factors, and ultimately the fact that change is just plain hard and difficult. Yet, this merely begs much deeper level questions: Why do we still so often not change even when necessary knowledge, information, and resources are present? Why can’t we simply will or make ourselves do what we know we need and are capable of doing? What is it about change that is so hard and difficult?
I believe that the answers to these questions reveal a relentless obsession with certainty at the core of the human condition. This may appear to be an unlikely or questionable inferential leap at this point, but indulge me and consider the following. We ultimately don’t change because it requires a commitment to a demanding and difficult process—put simply, we have to choose to be uncomfortable. But what exactly is it that makes the process so difficult and which makes us so uncomfortable? Is it not, among other things, the serious challenge and threat to our dearly held and precious certainties that is inherent within the change process itself? For whatever else this process may involve, it most certainly requires the embracing of uncertainty. Implicit within a new possibility or potentiality is the fundamental presence of uncertainty, or if you prefer, the absence of any absolute certainty (Kierkegaard, 1980/1844).
The emergence of anything truly new, in potentiality or actuality, confronts us with inevitable uncertainty. A particular possibility or potentiality may or may not be actualized, and if it does become actual, we cannot completely predict or anticipate how this will happen or the precise form it will assume. The new is that which has not been before, at least not in its present exact manifestation, and as such, cannot be completely controlled, known, or understood by us. In regard to new, changed ways of being in our world, we cannot be certain what they will demand of us in terms of sacrificing our old ways of living life or whether we will have the strength for such sacrifice. We cannot be certain that we will be happy and satisfied with our new selves, or that we will welcome them with gratitude and not quickly or eventually return to old existential modes that are more familiar and comfortable. We cannot be certain how our personal changes will impact our relationships with others and how our loved and not so loved ones will respond to them, whether these consequently changed relationships will endure, thrive, or come to an end. Every step on a new path is a risk in life-altering discovery, and we cannot be absolutely certain of the outcome beforehand, of where the path will lead us…every step on the way is done in “fear and trembling,” as Kierkegaard (1983/1843) knew well.
And isn’t this entirely the point? We cling desperately to the supposed certainties of the old because they protect us from risking the uncertainty of the new. We remain our old and present selves because we are not willing to risk losing the perceived certainty, familiarity, and comfort that they provide (Tillich, 2000). However, we forget that we can only gain what we are willing to risk losing. The new is only gained with the loss of the old; we can only become new and different if we lose and let go of who we have been.
In fact, we must be willing to engage in a great and vital risk by embracing that which is often posed as the opposite and most essential enemy of certainty, that is, the dynamic of doubt. That is indeed much to ask, though, given some innate resistance toward and sociocultural biases against this dynamic, for unfortunately doubt is too often regarded with suspicion, fear, and disdain. Tragically, those who doubt are typically thought to be “wishy-washy,” unsure of themselves, lacking in confidence, and insecure…doubting means that you aren’t confident in who you are as a person. I would like to suggest that not only is this not true, but that the opposite is actually the case.
A willingness to doubt our old/current selves and life patterns represents a foundation of confidence and security in our true and real selves, in the persons we are capable of becoming and meant to be. In order to change ourselves and how we live our lives we must call into question and doubt the authenticity and viability of our present identities and ways of living. We must actively doubt and critically question the false certainties of our old and present existence to discover the enlivening beauty of a new, transformed existence.
In the spirit of transparency, I must confess that generally in my life I am not a great risk-taker. I typically prefer the familiar and stable. I like to be comfortable, to know, and to feel that I am in control…I like my illusory certainties and often, at least initially, present strong resistance to change. However, I have learned and am committed to continue learning how to let go of my need for certainty, doubting what I believe myself and my life to be for the risk of growth and constructive transformation. At the beginning of this New Year, I challenge myself to embrace the uncertainty within the change process, risking the loss of who I am to become who I can and am meant to be. I invite you to undertake this challenge for yourself.
Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The concept of anxiety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1844)
Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1843)
Tillich, P. (2000). The courage to be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
— Scott Kiser