The Siren Call of Certainty

The human brain craves certainty. It likes to feel sure. When we feel uncertain about the future the more primitive parts of the brain go on alert and shift into self-protection. In this state, we search for and grasp anything that will make us feel safer and more certain.

Unfortunately, our self-protective instincts are being evoked by siren songs from a number of presidential candidates. I get frustrated when I listen to them threaten us with stories about how unsafe we are, whip up our anger at whomever they want to blame for the danger, and then sing about simple solutions to create certainty. They evoke the primitive parts of the brain to serve their own ends.

Remember that in Greek mythology the Sirens lured sailors with enchanting music to shipwreck on their small islands.

Believe me, I would like nothing more than to have simple and certain solutions to complex issues like wage stagnation, wealth inequality, and any of the “isms:” racism, sexism, ageism, or homophobia. However, things don’t work that way. Life and our conversations about it are as uncertain as the future. In meetings we wrestle with difficult problems with no certain solutions and never know what anyone is going to do or say.

How can we calm our survival instincts so we have access to the whole brain when we talk with one another (or vote)?

First, we can question the veracity of anyone who seems to be deliberately evoking fear or anger in us. Two of the most contagious and potentially destructive emotions are fear and anger. These are the emotions that seem to make us the most susceptible to grasping for easy solutions and a sense of certainty. Second, we can challenge the solutions being proposed by people who claim to have uncompromising confidence in their success.

It is difficult to do either of these when we are afraid or angry and have diminished access to the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex.  Since these siren songs will no doubt be sung until next November, it behooves us to turn down the volume on these sounds both when we vote and when we interact with one another at work and in our communities. It might be tempting over the next months to emulate fear mongering and anger stirring in our conversations with our co-workers and neighbors. I enjoin us all to resist the temptation to do this and treat ourselves and one another with extra care and kindness.

Each of us can start by mindfully noticing what is going on inside and around us so we can observe fear and not be driven by it and we can detect anger and not be overwhelmed by it. Stay awake and alert to the unrealistic siren song of certainty. We are all susceptible to it. Know that in addition to the certainty of uncertainty, it is also certain that we get to choose how we want to respond to it.

2 thoughts on “The Siren Call of Certainty

  1. I have tried many ways to calm these reptilian impulses, and have found daily meditation to be the only reliable way for me to “mindfully…observe fear and not be driven by it and…detect anger and not be overwhelmed by it.” What strategies work for you?

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