Saturday , March 2 2024
Letting go of our need to know, to convert others, or to be certain brings us into the present experience, whatever that may be.

The Arrogance of Certainty (Or, How to Wake Up the Soul)


A classmate of my daughter passed out pamphlets on his religious belief at the school’s entrance. (It’s a public school). He is 15 years old. Every chance he gets, he talks about Jesus. At first I wasn’t sure what bothered me (the most) – pushing his religion on others or his arrogance. (It doesn’t help that he is exceptional at everything and likely to be voted as best of something.) Of course, arrogance and forcing our ideas on others go hand in hand.

Recently an angry atheist called me a stupid, boring c*** during my first (and last) Twitter debate about spirituality. When I shared my view that we all come from the same cosmic soup and will all return to it, the name-calling began. I may have quoted the poet and novelist Gretel Ehrlich in my attempt to find a common ground: “Sacred or secular, what is the difference? If every atom inside our bodies was once a star, then it is all sacred and all secular at the same time.”

Ironically, the atheist comes across as being just as self-righteous and arrogant as the 15-year-old boy who was passing out the religious pamphlets.

In our certainty we become blinded by our own arrogance and miss the diversity of experience available to us. If we could only let go of our certainty we could wake up to the tension and beauty of the moment. Letting go of certainty is edgy but it invites a much wider scope of possibility and experience.


As I wrote this article I watched, out my window, at this spring’s arrival of sand hill cranes. I thought about faith and how it shows up in the natural world. There is no certainty in the natural world, but it doesn’t “worry” about the future or the afterlife. However, each year I see the cranes expressing their faith as they return to the pond to nest and to raise their young. Given Nature’s constant cycle of life and death, it is the ultimate expression of faith. Faith is a good thing—because it encourages one to open up and be vulnerable to the greater mysteries of the unknown and of the uncertain.

Letting go of our need to know, to convert others, or to be certain brings us into the present experience, whatever that may be. Alan Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity, said, “If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go.”

At the age of 16 I found the I Ching and have used its consultations as a tool to navigate my life (not to falsely predict the future). I refer to the source of the “help” I receive as “the Great Unknown.” In calling it this, I am acknowledging what is the essentially mysterious nature of life. In embracing this, I may more fully and spontaneously experience my moments and make meaning from the diversity of experiences that arise in them. The need for certainty, to be confident that Jesus loves me or that heaven or enlightenment assures me a happy future, steals the immediate miracle of life’s unfolding. This is because, as Alan Watts points out, there is no true assurance as to what is to come:

If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end.

What arrogance does is separate us from each other, from the natural world, and even ultimately from ourselves. Our arrogance of certainty limits the myriad of connections we would experience if only we allowed a respected place for the tension of our uncertainty. We are an intimate part of the Great Unknown. The following quote is also from The Wisdom of Uncertainty by Alan Watts:

If there is a heaven, insecurity and living with the Unknown is the key to entering it. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it. It is like the Persian story of the sage who came to the door of Heaven and knocked. From within the voice of God asked, “Who is there” and the sage answered, “It is I.” “In this House,” replied the voice, “there is no room for thee and me.” So the sage went away, and spent many years pondering over this answer in deep meditation. Returning a second time, the voice asked the same question, and again the sage answered, “It is I.” The door remained closed. After some years he returned for the third time, and, at his knocking, the voice once more demanded, “Who is there?” And the sage cried, “It is thyself!” The door was opened.

I encourage us to explore ideas and to try them on for size but to also remain open to where these ideas may lead us, which is invariably to an experience manifesting an abundance of perspectives and a myriad of possibilities. Wisdom comes from so many places. As a consultant to writers, I devour books on writing. The last gem by Mark Doty, The Art of Description, spoke about how certainty can be an obstacle to a writer:

Consciousness can’t be taken for granted when there are, plainly, varieties of awareness. The result is an intoxicating uncertainty. And that is a relief, is it not, to acknowledge that we do not after all know what a self is? A corrective to human arrogance, to the numbing certainty that puts a soul to sleep. It’s the unsayability of what being is that drives the poet to speak and to speak, to make versions of the world, understanding their inevitable incompletion, the impossibility of circumscribing the unreadable thing living is.

Basically, we do not know. We can’t be certain.


For the writer or spiritual explorer, in relaxing into the experience of our uncertainty, in surrendering control, we earn a radiance of being, for in these encounters with the soul of the world, we awaken our own soul. I leave you with my favorite quote from The Wisdom of Uncertainty, which points to the underlying wisdom of the soul:

But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run.

About Julie Tallard Johnson

Julie Tallard Johnson is a psychotherapist, creative writing consultant and concept manager for individuals and businesses. She has been studying the scientific basis of thought transformation, inspiration, and creativity for 35 years. She is the author of several books, her latest, The Zero Point Agreement: How To Be Who You Already Are is available now in paperback and Kindle. She is a writing instructor at the UW-Madison, Continuing Studies. She enjoys being a writer for Blogcritics and is in search of her next article. She lives in rural Wisconsin on 40 acres of restored prairie and woods.

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  1. But what if Watts is wrong?