Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Confident Uncertainty

I’ve recently spent some time in cafés in Marin County and just happened each time to sit next to a couple of men talking. Now I don’t want to be too harsh on my own gender, but in each case, these guys could best be described as “arrogant jerks.” Not that they were talking about anything horrible, like racist or sexist beer-guzzling frat boys. Written down, the conversations were benign enough and even occasionally interesting. But there was something about the tone that felt off. Loud, show-offy, overly confident that whatever they were saying was incredibly fascinating and 100% right. Each trying to one-up the other or affirm their mutual superiority. Do you know the type?

I’m always trying to trace behavior to ancient hunter/gatherer needs and I suspect that unbridled confidence is essential to the male hunter mentality. As is an over-fascination with tools. “Hey, man, I know that this is where the game runs by, you see, they’re following some spiritual bio-rhythm that dictates their daily fluid intake at the waterhole. And by the way, check out my new spear, with a special drag-reduction tapered tip.”

Confidence is a good thing and a biological imperative as well. A Neolithic buddy wringing his hands and exclaiming, Oh God-yet-to-be-invented, I know I am not worthy of bringing down this waterbuck” was not your hunting partner of choice nor was the waffling I’m really not very good at this, but I’ll do what I can” type. When you’re in the act of doing anything, you need to exude outer confidence and feel inner confidence, even in the face of certain knowledge that you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. As I accidentally captured it so well in my song The Science Fair Blues“I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to show it to you.”

But after the spear-throwing, basketball game or piano recital, that’s the time for humility to have its say. Indeed, it was J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) who said “Life is a long lesson in humility.” I guess what bothered me about the guys at the café was the tone of “Look what I know.” Let’s face it. In the face of the overwhelming complexity of this world and the vastness of the universe, we know basically absolutely nothing. Not to stop us from grasping for something approaching a certain truth— of which there are many beyond death and taxes—but to keep us listening and questioning and investigating and revising. “All your questions will be answered” said one teacher at the beginning of an Orff training he was leading. “All your answers will be questioned—including mine” is how I start my workshops.

I have sometimes been accused—unjustly, in my humble opinion— of arrogance. From my point of view, the accusation mistakes a confidence borne from extensive experience for arrogant certainty. But it doesn’t work so well to respond with “You ignorant sniveling jerk, I’m not arrogant!” So I just shrug my shoulders in the Californian way and say, “I’m sorry you perceive it that way. It’s not my intention” while secretly thinking “You’re an ignorant sniveling jerk!”

So for the record, the one thing I’m reasonably confident about is my uncertainty and the one thing I’m certain of is the need for a reasonable confidence.

I think. But maybe not. On the other hand…

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