Thoughts On Certainty And Control
The anniversary of my father’s death has come and gone once again. It has been 37 years since he committed suicide; he was fifty-five and I was eighteen.
Dad was an alcoholic and the gentlest man I’ve ever known. We’ve all tried to piece together the answer to the puzzle of his suicide, but no one knows why he did it. One of my sisters and I believe that it might have started on the beaches of Normandy. (Watch the opening sequence to “Saving Private Ryan” to see what he experienced.) But early on—and maybe still—each of us who loved him took on the burden of cause. If only...
But that kind of control isn’t possible. Control of anything but your own actions is an illusion. While I might have influence on other people, it happens only with their consent. What they ultimately choose to do is entirely out of my power.
Maybe Dad lost his battle with control. He could no longer bear whatever pain that alcohol could not erase. And his final act of control was suicide. It gave him the peace that escaped him for much of his adult life.
There is a kind of surrender that is not defeat but serenity. It is letting go of control, allowing events to unfold as they will and adapting to them. This means giving up the goal of certainty, described variously as absolute truth, conviction, knowledge, and reality.
We all want certainty. It is not a weakness so much as a hunger. “Knowing” reduces fear of the unknown, one of the greatest fears we have. But knowledge is a journey, not a destination. For the moment we settle on a conclusion or set of beliefs—“The Answer”—we stop moving, thinking, examining, assessing. Therein lies the problem with certainty: it provides us with a sense of security which leads to stagnation.
I think those who are most at peace don’t need certainty and control as much as others. They are open to change, new information, diversity, and conflicting points of view. (Don’t count me in this group yet. Too far to go.)
It’s taken me many years to accept that I will never know what haunted my father so much that he had to end his life. I cannot know because I have chosen life. I can finally say “I don’t know” and let it be. I can apply that kind of acceptance to the mystery of God and yet still seek knowledge, insight, and wisdom. It is quite freeing to understand that “I don’t know” is an answer in itself.