Accepting Uncertainty

Yana - Madison, New Jersey
Entered on September 20, 2008

I believe that it is necessary to accept uncertainty.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, even as a small child, I saw the chasm between the black and white certainty of the state ideology and the complexity of human nature, between the glowing official reports and the reality of everyday life riddled with corruption, brutality, alcoholism and shortages. I heard the whispered stories about Soviet history’s terrors that destroyed the lives of millions of people, including members of my own family. Yet, when I was 10 years old, I marched with my classmates in a parade that celebrated an official Soviet holiday. It was one of those ostensibly voluntary events for which you had to show up, or else…

On that brilliant spring day, moving briskly with all the other children in neat dress uniforms, I was unexpectedly seized by a desire to join this celebration wholeheartedly, to forget the dark truths, to believe in the certainty projected by slogans on the scarlet banners, by thrilling marching music pouring out of the orchestra brass, by handsome, heroic visages on gigantic billboards. For days I daydreamed of living a life buoyed by an unshakeable belief in a glorious past, glorious present and even more glorious future. Then this mood vanished. Ruefully, I admitted to myself that to acquire such certainty I needed to get rid of my brain.

A few years later, I emigrated to the United States with my family. Here, I encountered a bewildering array of paths that promised to lead to certainty: financial advice, nutritional regimens, self-help methods, political programs, spiritual teachings. Each claimed to rid its followers of anxiety and doubt in some (or all) aspects of life. I eagerly perused these wonderful offers. Alas, as I carefully examined each one, I saw at best some valid points mixed with oversimplification and hype, and at worst plain quackery. I was deeply disappointed that these claims did not live up to scrutiny, and that I was not sufficiently gullible. I craved certainty, even false certainty, amidst the upheaval, excitement and anxiety of my new life.

Eventually, I took a different tack. I chose statistics as my profession. While my motivations were in part practical, statistics also attracted me by offering a mathematical language for discussing uncertainty and a set of techniques for acquiring knowledge and making decisions that take into account the inherent uncertainty of our world.

Still, I struggle with the burden of uncertainty. There is a part of me that still longs for the confident brass of the marching band, the bold print of the 100% guarantee.

When I read about various extremists unwilling to co-exist with those who do not share their beliefs, I am horrified and repelled by their actions. Yet I can imagine part of their motivation – the desperate, furious desire to blot out uncertainty, the threat of doubt embodied by anyone who sees the world differently from them.

I suppose, it is a paradox. Reluctantly, yet firmly, I believe in accepting uncertainty.