How to Live with Certainty in Uncertain Times
What makes a relationship right, or an important decision? How can you tell if deep spiritual questions have an answer? As children, we all asked these questions. They came naturally. Is there a God? Do I have a soul? What happens after I die? Children are too young to understand that their parents are just as confused as they are. But the answers are given, and for a time they suffice. If Grandma went to heaven to be with Grandpa, a child will sleep better and feel less sad.
When you grow up, however, the same questions return. You can postpone the deeper ones, perhaps, but not in matters of love, relationships, and personal decisions. Everyone wants to know the answers to those kinds of dilemmas. And thus you discover that your parents, however well intentioned, never showed you the way (unless you happen to be one child in a million who had very mature parents who could truly love and understand you).
I know I seem to be painting a very large, open-ended picture. But getting into a healthy relationship, discovering whether you have a soul and even picking the right job have something in common.
In all these cases you either hope, believe or know what the answer is. “I hope he loves me enough.” “I believe my spouse is faithful.” “I know this marriage is solid.” These are very different statements, and we find ourselves awash in confusion because “I hope,” “I believe” and “I know” are never the same thing. We just wish they were.
If you will indulge me in sounding so abstract, there’s a useful lesson here. The spiritual path actually has only these three elements. You move from a state of uncertainty—”I hope?”—to a somewhat firmer state of security—”I believe”—and eventually end up with true understanding—”I know.” It doesn’t matter whether the specific issue is about relationships, God or the soul, about the higher self, heaven or the far reaches of the supernatural. Either you hope, you believe or you know.
You have already made that journey—many times, in fact. As a child, you hoped you would be a grown-up. In your 20s, you believed that it was possible. Now you know you are an adult. You hoped someone would love you; you believed in time that somebody did; and now you know that they do. If this natural progression hasn’t happened, something has gone wrong, because the unfoldment of life is designed to follow from wish to fulfillment. Of course, we all know the pitfalls. Divorce generally means you didn’t know if someone truly loved you. Children who grow up resenting their parents usually don’t know who to trust. A hundred other examples could be offered.
But the important thing is to get you back on the path.
Step 1: Realize that your life is meant to progress.
Step 2: Reflect on how good it is to truly know something rather than just hoping and believing. Don’t settle for less.
Step 3: Write down, on three separate lists, the things you hope are true, the things you believe are true and the things you know are true.
Step 4: Ask yourself why you know the things you know.
Step 5: Apply what you know to those areas where you have doubts, where only hope and belief exist today.
I believe that when you truly know something, the following things pertain:
You didn’t accept other people’s opinions. You found out on your own.
You didn’t give up too soon. You kept exploring despite blind alleys and false starts.
You trusted that you have the power, determination and curiosity to find out the real truth. Half-truths left you dissatisfied.
What you truly know grew from the inside. It made you a different person, as different as two people, one of whom has deeply loved and the other hasn’t.
You trusted the process of personal growth.
You aren’t afraid of your emotions. The truth always feels a certain way; uncertainty is queasy and gives off a bad smell.
You went beyond logic into those areas where intuition, insight and wisdom actually count. They became real for you.
I would say that these elements are universal. They apply to the Buddha but also any young person learning how to be in a relationship or finding the right purpose in life. By dividing the project into its components, the huge questions about life, love, God and the soul become manageable. You can work on each ingredient at a time. Are you prone to accepting secondhand opinions? Do you have a habit of distrusting your own decisions? Is love too painful and confusing to explore deeply? These aren’t impossible obstacles. They are part of you, and therefore nothing can be nearer or more intimate. Moving from “I hope” to “I believe” to “I know” is nothing less than the journey of life. You don’t have to buy a ticket. You were born with one in your hand.