Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Certainty is a Sucker's Game

Both girls wanted to wear the blue princess gown and they both were certain that they had it first. When I arrived on the scene they were in a tug of war that threatened to tear the thin costume fabric to shreds, so I placed my hand on it, and said, "I hear you're fighting over this dress."

"I had it first!"

"No, I had it first!"

This kind of thing happens almost every day in every preschool. And most of the time, the adult steps in with solutions that involve taking turns, sharing, and setting timers. Instead, I said, "You both say you had it first."

"I did have it first!"

"You did not, I did!"

They were both certain, while I had no way of knowing. What I did know is this: "There is only one blue princess dress and two girls want to wear it."

We stood there for what felt like a long time. There were a few more rounds of trying to persuade one another, but much of the energy had gone out of it. Finally, one of them released her grip and said, "I know, I'll wear the pink dress today and then you can let me wear the blue one tomorrow!"

Her friend replied, "We can do it every day! Today, tomorrow, today, tomorrow!"

Certainty is a sucker's game, especially when one person's certainty is forced upon another.

"In order to seek truth," wrote French philosopher René Descartes, "it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, all things."

It's the wisdom of a man who has often found himself to be wrong. He then went on to assert a certainty, "I can doubt everything, except one thing, and that is the very fact I doubt. Simply put -- I think therefore I am."

But certainty is a sucker's game. Neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio tells us that conscious thought arises from a conversation between our bodies and our nervous system spurred by our feelings. Our feelings give birth to consciousness, to thought, so Descartes is once more wrong. As Damasio puts it, "I feel therefore I am."

And some day, I expect, Damasio's assertion will be called into doubt. Indeed, not long ago, while in the midst of reading one of Damasio's books, I found myself, quite by accident, talking to a neuroscientist who worked at the University of Southern California, the same university as Damasio. I enthused about the book to which this scientist replied, "Damasio's an arrogant prick." He went on to detail what he saw as flaws in his theory. So perhaps Damasio's certainty will be turned to doubt sooner rather than later. 

"(T)he most beautiful thing in the world," wrote poet Robert Frost, "is conflicting interests when both are good."

Most of us don't think of conflict as particularly beautiful. I mean, armed conflict, war, is as ugly as it gets, but even our day-to-day conflicts with one another can turn ugly. For instance, we might call one another names, like "arrogant prick." But I don't think this is what Frost was referencing. In the sucker's game of certainty, ugliness is inevitable. But when we approach conflict in the spirit of doubt, with the knowledge that we are most certainly, at least partially, in the wrong, and that those with whom we are in conflict are most certainly, at least partially, in the right, we create the opportunity for the greatest beauty of all: agreement.

Certainty makes agreement impossible. All that's left is for one side to force the other to concede, which is the opposite of agreement.

Damasio says that consciousness begins with feelings (which he distinguishes from emotions, but not in a way that matters here), but it could also be argued that it begins the first time we open our eyes and encounter photons. Since our brains, at birth, know none of the stories about the world, that first encounter is the most direct, perfect, and certain view we will ever have of the truth. As Stanford neuroscientist Patrick House writes, "The first time your brain lied to you was the second time you opened your eyes." From birth, our brains are telling us stories about what we take in about the world through our senses. Our brains get better over time at telling convincing visual stories as they notice more and more events coinciding with our movements, our brain's guesses, and the outside world. "These stories, however, though they become more convincing and useful, do not necessarily become more true."

We are creatures who tell and are told by stories. When our stories come into conflict, we have two choices. We can play the sucker's game of certainty or tell the beautiful story of doubt.

Conflict is as common in preschool as it is anywhere humans come together. Too often, adults see our role as imposing certainty through our rules and solutions. Of course, in our role of keeping children safe, we are obliged to stop violence, but beyond that, most of the time, when I set my certainty aside, I find that the children are fully capable of working out a story that leads to agreement. And agreement is beautiful.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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