Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) in The Descent of Man
(Pic of us by our friend N. Check out more of his stuff here.)
I am currently reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. It is called Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and it is about how Abraham Lincoln mustered together all of his political rivals into a team. The reason everyone respects Abe so much today is because in the midst of the greatest conflict our country has ever faced he “refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights” (Goodwin). He listened to everyone, even people he didn’t like when they were passionately disagreeing with him.
This is unlike the elderly man I just observed in Starbucks for an hour. He kept talking to the young guy beside him. At first, I thought they were working together, but it quickly became apparent that they had never met before. The old man kept telling his young friend stories of his own brilliance. He told him how he had taken apart his father’s lawn mower when he was six and put it back together again. He talked about how he commented on his Facebook friend’s pictures if he thought they were inappropriate. He was insufferable and didn’t stop even when the (very patient) younger man told him that he had a test the next day. This man was so self-assured that he had lost his ability to listen to things he did not want to hear, or even consider there were things he did not know.
Abraham Lincoln was not so self-assured. He was wracked with uncertainty, grief, even, some historians argue, depression. This suffering was displayed masterfully in the movie “Lincoln”, which I highly recommend. Lincoln is not the only example of a great thinker who was forced to live closely with the uncertainty of the future. Darwin doubted his own work so much it took him twenty years, and the presence of a usurper to his theory, before he published. If you ever choose to read On the Origin of the Species, it is better to only read the first four chapters. After that, Darwin waffles and defends himself in example after example. He was not certain anyone would accept his theory.
No one can be certain of anything. Last week, I was reading the book The Science Writers’ Handbook. I was reading about how to pitch a story and I felt overwhelmed with the weight of uncertainty. What if my pitches didn’t work, not just in this field, but in every aspect of my life? What if I proved universally unmarketable? I started crying and called my mom. My mom is a wise woman, but she had nothing comforting to say. There is nothing to say. Life is uncertain.
It is intensely uncomfortable to live with this knowledge. It is nearly as uncomfortable as living with the only certainty-that all my friends, family, and eventually you, P, and I will die. However, it is only but constantly reminding myself of this uncertainty (and the certainty) that can internalize that I am not undefeatable, that it is important that I listen to others, that I must strive to be better every day. Because of the uncertainty, I appreciate every blessing I am given. In the age of positive thinking, it is important to consider this uncomfortable truth. The uncertainty of life helps me to live better, even if it is sometimes overwhelming.