As I stood in the ankle-deep water of the Cahaba River late Tuesday afternoon, it was so serene that time seemed to stand still.
I had ditched my shoes and rolled up my pants to wade into the water for a better view of a warm golden sunset. The water was unseasonably warm for a late February day. I stood there feeling the water rush against my legs as my eyes took in the color and majesty of another perfectly routine Alabama sunset.
In the stillness, I couldn’t help but think that the scene before me had played itself out — like perfect clockwork — for many hundreds and thousands of years. It occurred to me that if I could somehow transport myself back in time — say a thousand years — to this exact spot, I would be watching a sunset that would be essentially the same, depending on the clouds that day.
Nature is like clockwork. It’s predictable. That’s why we know when a comet is coming back. It’s why I know the sunset Wednesday evening will happen at 5:37 in Birmingham. It’s why we know what will happen when you mix two chemicals in a particular way. And it’s why we know that the new life of spring will return in the coming days — in exactly the same way it does every year.
Humans like certainty. I certainly do. As far as I can tell, we’re the only creatures on the planet who crave certainty. All of the rest of Creation simply assumes that the cycles of nature will continue to play themselves out for eternity.
Nature is predictable. Humans are not.
We crave certainty, but we are the most unpredictable parts of this world — and our craving for certainty can create paralysis, because we want other people to be as dependable as the timing of this sunset.
We make our plans and pretend that our decisions will bring us certainty, but we’re lying to ourselves. Things rarely work out as we think they will.
Everyone who starts a business thinks he will succeed. Every person who gets married thinks his marriage will be happy and long-lasting. Everybody who invests money thinks he’s going to earn a profit in return.
But businesses fail every day. Marriages fall apart — often in ways that were obvious long ago to others. The vast majority of people lose their investment cash and wonder what happened.
We see this clearly in other people, but we have an unconscious delusion that we’re different — that we see the world clearly and that our decisions will be right. Then we continue to lie to ourselves — and remain willfully blind to the evidence — when things don’t work out as we planned.
It’s easy to become afraid of making decisions. If life teaches us that there isn’t certainty — and if we can’t rely on the people around us to be predictable — we can feel stuck. We can stand frozen — just as I stood frozen in the Cahaba River watching this sunset — afraid to take any chances.
What if our worst fears come true?
What if he doesn’t love me? What if I take a chance on this business or job and I fail? What if he dies and I’m left alone? What if I lose all my money?
Most of our real fears — when it comes to decisions — have to do with doubting ourselves and doubting others. We know that we can’t have perfect control of our health or whether we’re hurt in accidents. But we think we should be able to count on ourselves and we think we should be able to count on those we love.
But we can’t count on human beings.
There’s only one solution to this paralysis, as far as I can tell. We have to have the courage to stop expecting certainty. We have to be willing to trust our hearts and take chances on the things that matter most.
Some things in life are like gambling. I don’t like that — because I don’t like to gamble — but it’s true. More than anything else in life, the other people we choose to be in our lives are the biggest gambles we make.
Choosing the people you will trust is a bit like choosing lottery numbers. I don’t play lotteries — simply because I understand how probability math works — but choosing the people in our lives is a lottery that we all have to play.
You choose which people to bet on. The bet is terribly uncertain. Those people might abandon you. They might disappoint you. They might leave you lost and alone.
But the only thing worse than making a bet on somebody is being afraid to make a bet at all. (Or making a failed bet once and then being afraid to make another.) If you want certainty, you’ll never risk anything. And in your quest to stay safe and secure, you will remain uncertain and paralyzed.
There are some things in life that are certain. I take comfort in those things. The cycles of nature are reassuring and make me feel grounded.
But we can never be sure about people. The best we can do is to trust our hearts when we choose who to place our bets on.
After that, we have only two choices. We can remain paralyzed and uncertain or we can move forward — jumping off the cliffs of uncertainty — with faith that a net will be there to catch us when we take that big chance.