that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Blessed are they that remain uncertain

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I have been pondering Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction: “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”

I don’t know how many people today remember Robert Benchley, but that he titled one of his essay collections 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or David Copperfield should tell you a good deal about how funny he could be.

And not just on paper. He had a successful career as an actor, making 46 comic shorts, for one of which, How to Sleep, he won an Academy Award in 1936. (He also appeared in some feature-length films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.)

I was aware of Benchley as an actor before I became aware of him as a writer. From time to time, during the early days of television, movies he was in would be run and re-run and my mother and grandmother, who were apparently fond of him, always drew my attention to him. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I came upon his essays. Then, of course, I discovered that he had been a member of the Algonquin Round Table.

But back to his Law of Distinction.

You will not be surprised to learn that I count myself among those who do not believe there are but two kinds of people. I don’t think there are many kinds, but I’m sure there’s more than two.

I have lately had the opportunity of getting to know a kind I had not thought so numerous, those who bring to mind something a 19th-century British prime minister, Lord Melbourne, said of the historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay: “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.”

These are people who are so sure that what they think is true that they don’t even bother arguing their position or supporting it with evidence. With them it’s ex cathedra all the way. As for those who might think otherwise, well, they’re either intellectually dishonest or just plain stupid. Either way, they are hardly deserving of any respect, or even civility.

I myself would not want my mind to be sclerotically certain of all and sundry. It would be like reading a mystery novel while knowing all along whodunit. Why bother?

Actually, as I’ve grown older I’ve grown fonder of uncertainty. Many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I decided that I should lay the foundation for my intellectual life by toting up all the things I was certain of, which is to say all the notions I subscribed to that I was pretty sure I could prove.

I didn’t get very far. The more I tried to arrive at bedrock certainty, the more complicated and elusive things seemed to get. Pretty soon, getting on with life took precedence over getting to the bottom of it, and I settled on improvising my way through it, trusting my instincts and playing hunches.

So I suppose I should feel sorry for those among us who are so very sure their way of looking at things is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. What a dull and disappointing world they inhabit, where everything is settled but none of it has been implemented. For none of these people likes the way things actually are, and for a very simple reason: The way things actually are is never the way they are sure they ought to be.

What they need to master is the beatitude of doubt: Blessed are they that remain uncertain, for they shall enjoy the mystery.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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2 Responses to “Blessed are they that remain uncertain”

  1. I completely agree with you about the rewards of uncertainty, and the pleasure of living in the mystery. I also agree that people who are too certain of themselves and their opinions are almost always wrong.

    At the same time, I would gently point out that there’s a necessary consequence to living in uncertainty—perhaps it’s even a paradox—and that is that if one is truly going to walk one’s talk about uncertainty, one is required to become ever less judgmental of others, and of their opinions. One might have to give up judgment in favor of perception. That can mean giving up the need to be right, which is something the ego finds difficult to let go of.

    What uncertainty offers is, perhaps, therefore, the virtue of perception over judgment, of taking the attitude to wait and see, rather than to rush to condemnation on any point. One must leave the game open-ended, and play it for its own sake, rather than as a path towards a fixed goal with a desired outcome. (cf. James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”) And one must learn to give up that urge to make snap judgments, especially on topics one is invested deeply in, and to sit with not-knowing. (cf. Pema Chodron, “Comfortable With Uncertainty”)

  2. Goodness, I’ve stolen that line from your first paragraph and never new that it was attributed to Robert Benchley.

    What I find interesting is the mantra of the religious left about mystery and “living the questions” and accepting uncertainty about all. This is in reaction to the certainty of Christian fundamentalists. Yet…the left has its own certainties about which they are quite committed. They are not Bible thumpers, of course, but rather, social policy thumpers—and somewhat emotional about it.

    Nonetheless, living with uncertainty is actually fairly easy—life is full of mystery.

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