Why do people remain in situations in which they’re unhappy? Why do people hate their jobs, but remain there? Why do people in miserable marriages remain, frequently producing children to join in the dysfunction? And why do people who see the sickness of a failing political system remain loyal to it rather than look for alternatives?
I suspect it’s largely because people have trouble dealing with uncertainty. They might be miserable with what they have, but they’re unwilling to give it up until they have proof that the alternative is better. They’re scared to step out into the uncertainty of taking a chance and they’re scared to have faith that they can build something better.
It’s uncertainty that makes people terribly uncomfortable with certain situations and even certain art. In the work of M.C. Escher, we see a perfect example. Instead of painting normal and understandable things in the world around us, this brilliant Dutch artist created works that feel uncomfortable to many people, because much of it feels contradictory and uncertain, such as the example above. (Which way is the water flowing, anyway? How can what you’re looking at even exist?)
Earlier today, I was asking some people why so many feel driven to have opinions about things they’re not qualified to have opinions about. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it’s because of this need for certainty. If you care about the outcome of a murder trial — as many did with the Casey Anthony trial when the verdict came down today — you tend to tell yourself that you know more than you do. If you think the murder victim was cute and defenseless — as was the case of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony — and if you think the accused is a hardened liar — as was the case of her mother, Casey Anthony — it’s easy to decide that you’re certain who killed the girl. It’s not really that you can prove the case. You simply feel a need to know the truth, so you choose to believe (with certainty) whatever feels right to you. It might not be rational, but it’s human nature.
When I mentioned unhappy situations that people stick with, I intentionally chose an example for which the solution might be controversial, divorce. Many people — especially those of us from more theologically conservative Christian backgrounds — believe that divorce is a terrible thing, because the Bible tells us (in Malachi 2:16, for example) that God hates divorce. It’s interesting to me that the Bible tells us many, many other things that God also hates — including lying and gossip (James 3:5-6, among numerous examples) — but we treat divorce as something that’s just not done while we engage in “white lies” and gossip frequently. Why? In addition to the fact that the harsh prohibition against divorce served society’s needs in the past, I think it’s also because it was a further reason for people to stick to their miserable certainty rather than take a chance on uncertain futures instead. (My complete thoughts about divorce are far too complicated to try to go into here.)
It seems that people will find any excuse to avoid uncertainty, even if it means remaining miserable. In modern society, most Americans complain about the direction of the United States politically, but the vast majority want to stick with a broken and immoral majoritarian system. (The same is true for other wester democracies.) Why? Because they don’t know what the alternative is.
For those of us who see that another way is possible, the first thing we have to work toward is showing other people that there is an alternative. The best solution would be if people could suddenly embrace and accept uncertainty, but that’s not likely to happen on a widespread basis. The second best solution is that a small number of us embrace uncertainty and build viable alternatives, because the Doubting Thomases will join us when it becomes obvious — and the future we’re talking about doesn’t appear so uncertain.
In motivational and self-help circles, there’s a line that’s become a cliche: “Leap and the net will appear.” The truth is that the net doesn’t always appear. We might hurt ourselves in the leap — whether that leap is quitting a job or admitting we married the wrong person or giving up on a political system we have an emotional stake in. But if the net is there, the payoff is tremendous. I’m willing to take the chance on the leap of faith, because staying with the status quo isn’t making anyone happy.
Note: Here’s a nice animation of the Escher painting that appears with this article.