Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Seeking Certainty

While watching Oppenheimer this summer, I had a LOT of thoughts (which this film will certainly do for most). One of the first thoughts I had was that I completely understand the draw of science and math. While I’ve never been adept at science or math, they both deal with certainty, at least more than a lot of other disciplines. What feels better than being sure?  Once things are discovered and tested and calculated, people get to be SURE. That calculation should always come out the same, that experiment should always yield the same results. The good ‘ole reliability and validity, right? Those people accomplished an amazing scientific feat but look what it did to the world. Certainty, yes. Horrific death, destruction, and a fear of that happening again forever? Also, yes. This amazing discovery isn’t something that can be undone, which the characters in the film realized. 

For my psychologist friends, please don’t come for me, but I don’t consider psychology to be a science in the same way as some of the others. There are branches of psychology that are more solid, like neuropsychology, but overall psychology is research, a list of symptoms, and guessing. There aren’t medical tests for depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, it’s not an exact science. Last year after losing one of my best friends to suicide who was participating in weekly therapy and taking medication, I had a major crisis of conscience. What if this is all bullshit? Diagnoses can be wrong, medication can certainly be wrong, the interactions are different for everyone, and if the patient isn’t transparent with difficult truths, therapy doesn’t work. To receive a diagnosis from the DSM-V, all that really needs to happen is for the patient to claim the correct symptoms. I will never know what was truly mentally going on with my friend, and that will leave a hole in me forever. That being said, when the patient truly wants help and will tell the truth, of course it can be incredibly beneficial. Just feeling heard and being encouraged to understand one’s own patterns, beliefs, and worldview can help. However, getting to that point involves vulnerability, time, money, and access to resources, which are things that aren’t easily come by for everyone. Where does this leave us in this field? ALL the stars have to align for people to benefit from mental health treatment, and often they don’t. This is why the argument of “It’s not guns, it’s mental health!” makes my blood boil. There is also the fact that folks who are struggling with their mental health often don’t realize it, they think they’re fine. Simply making counseling options available to people isn’t enough. It’s never that simple.

People are drawn to simple, they want it, and crave answers to every question that exists. To me, the ultimate question is “are we really supposed to know all of the answers?” Doesn’t growing and learning involve quandaries?  Aren’t we supposed to WONDER?

Faith certainly plays into this question as well. My faith has changed a lot over the past decade or so, and while I still consider myself to be a person who has faith, it looks and feels a lot different now. I still pray, but it’s super personal and I do it alone. My prayers are usually, “please protect my babies”, because this young adult stage of parenting is no joke, and you have zero control over what happens. I believe that a number of the stories in the Bible are meant to be allegories that we are to digest and understand, and then apply it to our own lives. I believe the main point of Christianity is to treat others well and help people who don’t have as much as we do. I struggle to understand the folks who take everything literally, but now I think I understand the comfort they experience in doing so. There is an answer for every single thing. That’s got to be a great way to wake up every morning, to have an answer to all the world’s problems. Human suffering? Just a way to build faith in God. Horrible natural disasters? Well, someone must have made God mad. Horrible things on the horizon? It’s okay, we’ll all be sucked up into the clouds soon anyway. There is a part of me that feels a little envious of folks whose belief falls into this category, because I think they have a level of peace that I don’t have. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe for a single second that God expects us to just nod and smile and never ask questions. That feels fairly lazy to me.  If everything is pre-determined, then why try? Why put yourself out there to take risks and help the less fortunate? It doesn’t make sense.

The word “certainty” has been clanging around in my head for a few days now. Recently I saw a commercial for California Psychics and their tag line was “experience the joy of certainty”. Aye carumba, what a racket.  Being uncertain is part of being human, but also linked to anxiety, which I struggle with. It’s very hard to try to rewire your brain away from all the insidious what-ifs in the middle of the night. Although I think it’s gotten better, I have had the tendency in my life to try to make things happen instead of waiting for them to happen naturally because at least then I’ll know what’s going to happen. I used to find this comforting, but it’s gone left more than once, it usually backfires somehow. This mindest is a massive mistake. I can kick around something in the future that hasn’t happened and imagine scads of different scenarios and outcomes that might unfold. Usually, none of what I imagine actually happens, and I have zero control over what happens anyway. I’ve tried to tell both my kids, “we don’t know what’s going to happen, we’ll deal with it once we know.” I’ve had to get better about this for my job. I used to stress a lot about what might happen the following day at work and have everything planned in my head ahead of time. For those of you who are familiar with school psychology, guess how much you can predict, or how accurate your estimations for the following day are? 😂😂. I don’t know when I was able to make the shift, but when I was able to decide, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow when I get up tomorrow.” has made my profession a lot more manageable. 

These days I don’t feel certain about much. I remember my dad saying something like “the older I get, the less I know.”  I completely understand that now. Sometimes I equate certainty with giving up. Giving up on critical thinking and just being a sheep that follows the herd. Or quite literally giving up, as my dear friend did. Once the decision is made to end your life, I’d imagine you’re pretty sure and certain. I don’t think she could handle not knowing what was going to happen in her life, so she took a horrible step that would provide her with that certainty. I’m sure that her decision was somewhat reassuring for her, I’ve read that suicidal people often feel a sense of peace right before they follow through with it. She made something happen, so she didn’t have to wonder what was going to happen. It’s over for her, but it’s sure hard on those of us she left here. 

One of the things that continually brings me peace is water, preferably water and rocks. Bring me to a waterfall, a creek, or crashing waves ANY day. There was a time on the beach in Tulum when the waves coming in were teeny, but so perfectly uniform. It was as though they were attached to some sort of machine that was making them come in the same size with the same amount of time between waves. I remember feeling kind of protected in a way then, without understanding why. The examples are endless, Crystal Cove in Laguna Beach after my cousin’s funeral, a hidden waterfall in Marin that I discovered with a friend last year, Eagle Falls this summer with my husband, waves crashing at Sea Ranch on the anniversary of losing my friend and my favorite beach in Bodega Bay, Schoolhouse Beach with my dear friend last February. It all makes me feel reassured. Because no matter what is happening in my little life, the world will keep turning, the waves will keep crashing on the shore, the water will keep 
falling, the rocks will continue to be gradually worn down. That I am sure of. The rest will unfold.