A few weeks ago during a conversation with a friend, she said something interesting to me, which is that one of the things that gets in our way as humans is certainty.  (She was more eloquent, and her context was more beautiful, and her implications were much, much deeper.)  She said it took her years to understand this.

Here’s the crux.  When we are certain, we are closed.  When we are certain, we stop learning and exploring and discovering what we can about whatever thing it is about which we are certain.  And after a split second of confusion, understanding came in a flash of lightning.

I got a taste of it last week in the comments section of a friend’s Facebook post.  AZ shared a link from Mike Rowe explaining why he lent his voice to Walmart’s advertisement regarding its plan to spend $250 million over the next ten years on purchasing goods made in the U.S.  I read Rowe’s entire post, the gist of which was, “This is a good thing.  Please step out of your worldview for a moment and consider this with integrity.”

One of the reasons I love this friend is that even though she dislikes Walmart and its reputed business practices, she still expressed some optimism about its initiative, and she invited discussion.  Most of the discussion that ensued involved skepticism over Walmart’s motives and optimism about the desired result.  There were a couple of people, though, who couldn’t get past their certainty that Walmart is a terrible company and that, therefore, this initiative is also terrible.  I shouldn’t have gotten involved, but I did and found myself in the dumbfounding position of defending Walmart.  My position was that Walmart may be a terrible company, but even for the wrong reasons, the company is doing the right thing, and that I’d take that any day.

This is a sampling of the responses:  Walmart is horrible to its workers (news articles would indicate this is probably true); Walmart has horrible business practices (the stories about how it conducted itself in Mexico indicate this is also probably true); Walmart is only spending a drop in its gigantic bucket on this, so it’s just PR; Costco is a much better company; and the U.S. doesn’t need Walmart’s help with manufacturing jobs anyway.

I almost sent an e-mail to my friend asking her to give me several weeks’ warning if one of the most vehement anti-Walmarters were to be in the same room with me.  If Costco were doing this, this woman would be completely stoked and add another verse to the Costco praise hymn.  Because it’s Walmart and because she knows for certain how terrible Walmart is, she has found herself in the position of arguing that pouring $250 million into the U.S. economy and specifically into manufacturing is not needed.

But do you see what I just did?  I expressed certainty about who this woman is and how worthy I consider her of my time and friendship based on how she reacted to one issue, and it’s an issue that wouldn’t make it into my top 20 list of concerns on an average day.  Certainty in all its forms for all its reasons poses danger, and certainty surrounds us everywhere we look.  It underpins the divides that we see in politics, in science, in technology, in the mompetitions – everywhere.  We are all convinced that we are right, to the point that we’re not willing even to consider the other side.

I have a request for you today.  If you have an opinion on which you are not willing to budge, please take a few minutes and try to gain a real understanding of why someone with the opposing view might hold that view, and then try to stop painting that person with the stubborn/stupid/ignorant/evil brush.  Life is so much richer and more complex than that.  Being open and less certain may help us all appreciate and remember it.

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5 Responses to Certainty

  1. Diane says:

    Oh well done. (Maybe).

  2. AZ says:

    Yes, yes, and yes. Although I must say that I am certain about the rightness of marriage equality. Even there, I don’t think opponents are stupid, stubborn, or evil, but I do think ignorance plays a big part. I think many opponents don’t know (or more accurately, don’t know that they know) gay people and therefore still think of gay people as Other.

    Is it okay if I think of the Westboro Baptist people (at least their leaders) as cruel, stupid, and/or bordering on evil?

    • I definitely don’t want to be the arbiter of what is ok to think and what is not ok to think because I’m pretty sure that would lead to the downfall of civilization. I think of you as one of the least certain people I know, meaning that you have opinions, strong ones, but you never strike me as unwilling to hear the other side and letting it inform your opinion. And man, those Westboro Baptist people are difficult to understand. I think maybe we just avoid them as much as possible and be part of the group of people who instead of engaging with them forms a gigantic human shield to prevent them from causing pain to families who have lost loved ones.

  3. Melissa says:

    I love the way you make me think each time I read your blog. Thank you.

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