Questioning our certainties

Socrates was famed for questioning certainties, his epigram: ‘I know only that I do not know’ is among the best known philosophical dictums. His genius was in his ability to question ‘certainties’, which is to say probe into closely guarded beliefs that people assert as certainties, without good grounds for doing so.

I find one of the of best ways to question my certainties is to get my head out of my map and get my body into the territory. By map I mean my heady assumptions or cogitations about someone or somewhere. And by territory I mean sitting with and getting to know that person or visiting that place with real curiosity.

That’s not always easy, there are many barriers to authentic connection. One of the best ways to stay removed from a person or place in my experience is to label them. Of course there are obvious ways to label, such as name calling, stigmatizing etc and I’ve learned to guard against that over the years. Less obvious, but no less harmful, is the labeling that results from helping.

For many years one of my deeply held certainties was that certain people needed my help. I believed for example that people I labeled as ‘poor people’ needed my help. Especially ‘poor people’ in the Global South. More especially if they were children and suffering from famine and persecution. Those certainties have been deeply undermined over the years, largely as a result of having my labeling of people and places challenged, not to mention my arrogance in assuming what they needed was my help.

Labels are loaded with all sorts of ideological judgements and presuppositions which act as barriers to genuine connection between people and places.

‘Poor people’ is a case in point. Too often it’s a way of othering. Better I think to use terms like ‘economically isolated’.

Over and over again in the early part of my career I created situations where I as the helper had authority over the people I helped. Without realizing it I labeled myself solely with reference to my assets (such as my credentials) and largely ignored my deficits (such as the fact that most of the time I didn’t really know what I was doing). At the same time I labeled/othered those I was helping in the direct opposite way, I saw them solely for what they were missing (such as a home if they were ‘homeless’), and was blind to what they had (such as personal capacities).

My certainty that I was needed blinded me from seeing that in fact I needed their needs. That in many respects I had sought out to fix other people’s versions of my own problems. Problems I was often too unaware or too scared to own.

As time has gone on I’ve made friends with uncertainty – my motto to every assertion that people make about a person or a place is: ‘maybe it is so, let’s go see if it is so’.

Interestingly, it is never just so. Certainties continue to be overrated when checked against people’s stories and the endless surprises and mysteries of a given place.

There is therefore only one thing of which I am certain and that is the value of questioning certainties.

The part I find hardest is discovering what my certainties are, so, thank goodness for honest fellow travelers who call them out!

Cormac Russell

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1 Comment
  • Shirley Berry

    Thank you Cormac for this insight. Henri Nouwen suggests that through his engagement with what leadership without a title “it took me a long time to feel safe in this unpredictable climate and I still have moments when I clamp down and tell everyone to shut up, get in line, listen to me and believe in what I say….however I am learning new things not just about pains and struggles of wounded people, but also about their unique gifts and graces. They teach me about joy and peace, love, care and and prayer – what I could never have learned in any academy” I agree only when we learn to suspend judgements and think out of a place of encounter have we any hope of seeing the beauty and value of one another without the shadows of inequality and statues creating the rules. I love what you have shared let’s keep pushing in and discovering the depth of relationship with every neighbour and friend.

    September 22, 2018 at 7:11 pm

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