The Uncertainty of All Things

When I went off to college, I felt pretty certain that I understood the way life works.  You ask Jesus into your heart, live as morally pure a life as possible and ask forgiveness for all the rest of the crap you do, memorize copious amounts of Scripture, pray as much as possible, and trust God for everything else.  This is a pretty simplified version, but you get the gist.

Now, almost twenty years later, there is basically nothing that I am certain about, for absolute certain. All the rules to the game I once played no longer make any sense.  In fact, I think I’m playing a different game with rules that feel impossible to completely grasp.

I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  again today, and one idea really stood out to me.

What is the truth, and how do you know it when you have it? p. 126

Because I’m finding, as Pirsig suggests in the book, that questions beget questions.  As you find answers you are really no further along in your journey because an infinite number of other questions arise at the same time. He describes it this way through his fictionalized character’s exploration into the scientific method :

“He [Phaedrus] had noticed again and again in his lab work that what might seem to be the hardest part of scientific work, thinking up the hypotheses, was invariably the easiest. The act of formally writing everything down precisely and clearly seemed to suggest them. As he was testing hypothesis number one by experimental method a flood of other hypotheses would come to mind, and as he was testing these, some more came to mind, and as he was testing these, still more came to mind until it became painfully evident that as he continued testing hypotheses and eliminating them or confirming them their number did not decrease. It actually increased as he went along.” p. 112


“In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one’s way out.” p. 125

I don’t claim to be operating out of the high country of the mind like brilliant people such as Pirisg, but I have definitely felt the getting lost-ness in the ever expanding stream of questions in my mind. My spiritual explorations definitely have a Phaedrean quality.  It also seems like my striving to answer all of these questions is a race that is getting faster and faster.  I feel manic at times and completely clueless about where this trip is taking me.

“Phaedrus wandered through this high country, aimlessly at first, following every path, every trail where someone had been before, seeing occasionally with small hindsights that he was apparently making some progress, but seeing nothing ahead of him that told him which way to go.” p. 127  (If you haven’t read the book, Google Phaedrus…or just insert my name in his place, because I see myself in this passage.)

My racing down every path trying to discover truth first really began when I finally concluded that I categorically do not believe in hell or Satan.  Since I no longer had a tidy solution for all of life’s problems, I frantically began a search for meaning in life. I started slow…OK, so if there is no hell, does everyone go to heaven or are evil people annihilated and cease to exist?  Then I moved on to whether or not atonement theory and our modern understanding of Jesus and the resurrection story made any sense. Next, I questioned whether or not stories in the Gospels were actually literally true. Then, a critical look at the Old Testament. Then on to readings in Buddhism, Taoism, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism,, Sufism, Cabbalism, and a tad bit of pagan thought. Throughout all of this exploration down various spiritual avenues, I have tried and am still trying to see how science, psychology, and the natural world fit in.  The questions keep coming from every direction and I chase answers down one path, and then down another, and then down yet another.

“And so he (or Julie) wanders blindly along one trail after another gathering one [puzzle] piece after another and wondering what to do with them…” p. 127

Are there any ultimate answers?  Do these puzzle pieces we get in life actually fit together somehow? Is there a destination to reach at some point?

In physics, there is a concept referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  I’m not a physics expert, but basically the idea is that you can’t precisely know the exact position and momentum of an object at the same time because things in the universe have qualities of waves and also of particles.  If you want have a good understanding of an object’s exact location, you’ll have to be OK with being less certain about it’s speed and momentum.  On the flip side, if you want to get more detailed information about an object’s momentum, you’ll have to content yourself with being less certain about where exactly in space the object lies.

I feel like maybe this is the way truth is, and consequently, all the answers for our questions.  We want to pin truth down and say, “Aha! Here it is, I’ve found it! And it’s just like this in all situations for everyone at all times.”  We may find a preliminary answer, a puzzle piece, but the truth squirms away from our pointed fingers and we discover that other variables aren’t so clear anymore.   A hypothesis: the uncertainty principle of truth:-we cannot simultaneously know something to be true for everyone in all situations at all times.

I don’t completely believe this either, because I think that LOVE is absolute truth.  But this just brings up more questions….is LOVE real?  Or just a by-product projection from neurotransmitters in our brains and a function of the survival of the fittest and evolutionary adaptation?  I’m leaning towards the former, that LOVE is real and transcends everything, but I’m not entirely certain.  Besides, the idea of LOVE is a squishy notion that can be about as hard to pin down as an atomic particle. For example, something may look like love on the outside and may benefit someone or something, but be created out of selfish motivations or means. Vice versa, something may not look loving by outward appearance but come from very good motives and means. Uncertainty, indeed.

Sometimes people wonder why I even bother to go to church anymore. I mean, I’m clearly not in the Christian mainstream.  For that matter, why do I go to a Zen Buddhist meditation group when I’m not hardcore Buddhist either?  I’m a little bit atheist, too, when it comes down to it.

I think I believe that all of the puzzle pieces I’m picking up day by day have a little bit of ultimate truth in them; I just have to be careful not to insist I understand everything about them at one particular point in time.  I can’t get all the pieces to fit together yet, and I can’t see the big picture on the puzzle box, which would be helpful.  But I need people to do life with, people who are also searching and feeling uncertainty and who know that they don’t understand it all.  Every group that I’ve ever encountered that is asking hard questions about life had a mix of great insights and big blindspots.  So, you do your best to find the people that help you stumble down the path you are on until you reach the next path, and there will be a new group of people to lead you down that one-people that help carry you through your uncertainties.

And now, I propose the Uncertainty Principle of Julie: I will inevitably squirm out of labels that are put on me and show up where you least expected it. I’m Christian, but I”m not. I’m Buddhist, but I’m not.  I’m a humanist, but I’m not. I’m just a strange bundle of uncertainties that is me.


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