Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Don't Want To Be A Jerk? Expect Some Anxiety

Don't Want To Be A Jerk? Expect Some Anxiety

I both envy and loathe the self-certain. I envy them their peace of mind.  I loathe their bullying.  

Increasingly, I see debate as doubting matches, opponents casting doubt on each other's opinions. The self-certain are master doubt-casters impervious to doubts cast their way. A mighty fortress is their opinion even when their opinion is dumb or ultimately deadly.  

I don't just loathe their bullying. I loathe the peril they put us in, luring the weak-minded to their side in throngs, dominating by self-serving force, not reason, and marching us in an unwavering line, unresponsive to new evidence or changing circumstances and therefore inevitably in a direction where stupidity lies.

My loathing wins out.  I will not master their lick. I will fight them, which means learning how to dominate the indomitable.  They're hard to dominate even when you're self-certain.  I aim to dominate with one hand tied up behind my back.  It's back there holding my anxiety, something the self-certain jettisoned long ago.

Anxiety is a sense that something's amiss. It's an alarm sounding to say, "pay attention here, you might be headed in the wrong direction."  Anxiety is the emotional flavor of doubt. Losing it is the most immediate, palpable and self-satisfying benefit of self-certainty.  No doubt? No anxiety.

When you wonder whether you're going in the wrong direction, you generally lose a little steam.  You waver. You await further guidance with a receptive ear and a discerning mind.  You don't know that you're headed in the wrong direction.  Maybe you're headed in the right direction.  But anyway you open up a little, softening enough to visit the possibility that it's time to redirect.  

The self-certain don't just sense your anxiety as an opening, a vulnerability they can exploit, and they don't just take it as a sign that they will inevitably win the debate.  They take it as a vindication of their position, a reality check that proves they're right about the world.  If you're anxious, then their foregone conclusion that they possess absolute truth is verified.

As if it were ever in doubt.   

I sure could use that other hand tied up behind my back.  But I can't jettison the anxiety.  I need it. It has re-steered me right more than a few times.

So how can you dominate the indomitable when you've resigned yourself to carry receptivity's baggage, a parcel they're not carrying. How does a self-doubting David beat a self-certain Goliath? How do win when they're stoked on self-certainty's steroids?

My latest guess is that, with practice you can become familiar enough with self-doubt and anxiety that you hold them nimbly and un-distractedly.  I've long thought that it pays to study doubt, to understand how it works and to gain "pattern-fluency" in the generic forms it takes  (See Wonderings of the World below).  

A benefit is that, when your doubt is exposed in debate it's no surprise to you.  You don't flinch with a sudden surge of anxiety about your anxiety. You can stick with the topic under debate, persisting in what you're insisting on.  

If they call attention to your doubt, you simply say or imply something like, "Of course I have doubts about my position, as any respectable thinker would.  They fit the standard mold and for you I'll list them (do this briskly but calmly).  Now that said, I still place my full weight behind my position. The fact that you don't doubt your position is not evidence that you're right, just that you're not much of a thinker.  Thinkers doubt. They're brave enough to withstand the anxiety that doubt engenders.  I suspect you gave that up long ago.  Don't have much of a stomach for anxiety, do you?"

You're still unlikely to win them over. In fact you're unlikely to get the airspace to give them that big a piece of your mind since the self-certain's first line of offense is drowning you out.  

Still, for others listening in, it may help reframe the debate, reminding them that self-certainty is weakly correlated with veracity and that there are two ways to build confidence in your beliefs.  One is by doing your homework; the other is by abandoning your homework and just declaring yourself infallible.

With thinking comes doubt, and with doubt anxiety.  I don't see a way around it.  But not seeing a way around it, one can embrace the challenge of doubting efficiently. One can get used to always carrying a little anxiety.


Wonderings of the World:  Some generic doubts presented as variations on the Serenity Prayer


1. Should I try to change this?

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses* and regretted no's* on the question "Should I try to change this?" because the last thing I want is the serenity to accept the things that will prove changeable or the courage to try to change the things that will not prove changeable.

Of course, the challenge is that what can be changed can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today. I join this?

2. Should I join this?

Grant me the enthusiasm to join the things that will prove to have been worth joining, the aversion to not join the things that will prove to have been not worth joining, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I join this?" because the last thing I want is the enthusiasm to join things that will prove to have been not worth joining or the aversion to not join things that will prove to have been worth joining.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove to have been worth joining can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

3. Should I stay with this?

Grant me the dedication to stay with the things that will prove to have been worth staying with, the impatience to not stay with the things that will prove to have been not worth staying with, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I stay with this?" because the last thing I want is the dedication to stay with things that will prove to have been not worth staying with or the impatience to not stay with things that will prove to have been worth staying with.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove to have been worth staying with can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

4. Should I be consistent here?

Grant me the flexibility to try new things in situations in which changed behavior will pay off, the steadfastness to be consistent in situations in which changed behavior will not pay off, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I be consistent here?" because the last thing I want is the flexibility to try new things in situations in which changed behavior will not pay off, or the steadfastness to be consistent in situations in which changed behavior will pay off.

Of course the challenge is that which situations are the ones in which changed behavior will pay off can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

5. Is this significant?

Grant me the focus to concentrate on the things that will end up proving significant, the obliviousness to ignore the things that will end up proving insignificant and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Is this significant?" because the last thing I want is the focus to concentrate on the things that will end up proving insignificant or the obliviousness to ignore the things that will end up proving significant.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove significant can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

6. Should I say this?

Grant me the honesty to say what will prove to have been helpful, the tact to not say what will prove to have been unhelpful and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I say it?" because the last thing I want is the honesty to say what will prove to have been unhelpful or the tact to not say what will prove to have been helpful.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove to have been helpful can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

7.  Should I sacrifice here?

Grant me the selflessness to sacrifice in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been worth it, the selfishness to do my own thing in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been not worth it and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I sacrifice?" because the last thing I want is to sacrifice in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have not been worth it or the selfishness to do my own thing in situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been worth it.

Of course, the challenge is that situations in which the payoffs to the group will prove to have been worth it can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

8. Should I delay gratification here?

Grant me the patience to delay gratification when the future payoff will prove to have been worth the wait, the impatience to gratify now when the future payoff will prove to have been not worth the wait and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I delay gratification?" because the last thing I want is the patience to delay gratification when the future payoff will prove to have been not worth the wait or the impatience to gratify now when the future payoff will prove to have been worth the wait.

Of course, the challenge is that situations in which the future payoff will be worth the wait can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

9. Should I keep hoping here?

Grant me the yearning that keeps hope alive when I will be able to make my dreams come true, the realism to let go when I won't be able to make my dreams come true and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I keep hoping?" because the last thing I want is the yearning that keeps hope alive when I won't be able to make my dreams come true or the realism to let go when I will be able to make my dreams come true.

Of course, the challenge is that the dreams that will come true can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

10. Should I be ashamed here?

Grant me regret when there are lessons to learn that will prove helpful with future choices, no regrets when there are no lessons to learn and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yes's and regretted no's on the question "Should I regret?" because the last thing I want is regret when there are no lessons to learn that will prove helpful with future choices or no regrets when there are lesson to learn.

Of course, the challenge is that whether there are lessons to learn that will prove helpful with future choices can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

11. Should I expect more of the good I've got here?

Grant me the sense of entitlement to expect more of the good I've had when it will be forthcoming, the surrender to let go of the good I've had when it will not be forthcoming and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I expect more of the good I've had?" because the last thing I want is the expectations to hold out for more of the good I've had when it won't be forthcoming or the surrender to let go of the good I've had when it will be forthcoming.

Of course, the challenge is that whether it will be forthcoming won't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

12. Should I give here?

Grant me the generosity to give to those who will be motivated by it, the firmness to not give to those who will be motivated by it and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I reward?" Because the last thing I want is the generosity to give to those who will not be motivated by it or the firmness to not give those who would be motivated by it.

Of course, the challenge is that who will be motivated by it can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

13. Should I keep track of who owes what here?

Grant me the contentedness to stop keeping track of who owes what in cooperative friendship, the wariness to keep track of who owes what in competitive negotiations and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the questions "Should I keep track of who owes what?" because the last thing I want is the contentedness to stop keeping track of who owes what in competitive negotiations or the wariness to keep track of who owes what in cooperative friendship.

Of course, the challenge is that which relationships will turn out to have been cooperative friendships or competitive negotiations can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

14. Can I trust them?

Grant me the trust to invest in those who will prove trustworthy, the wariness to distrust those who will prove untrustworthy and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the questions "Can I trust them?" because the last thing I want is the trust to invest in those who will prove untrustworthy or the wariness to distrust those who will prove trustworthy.

Of course, the challenge is that who will prove trustworthy can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

15. Should I comply with the letter of the law?

Grant me the obedience to comply with the letter of the law when it serves the spirit of the law, the defiance to disobey the letter of the law when it doesn't serve the spirit of the law and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I comply with the letter of the law?" because the last thing I want is the obedience to comply with the letter of the law when it doesn't serve the spirit of the law or the defiance to disobey the letter of the law when it doesn't serve the spirit of the law.

Of course, the challenge is that what will serve the spirit of the law can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

16.  Should I doubt?

Grant me the doubt that motivates a search for more wisdom when the path is unclear, the confidence to stop searching when the path is clear and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no's on the question "Should I pray to be granted the wisdom?" because the last thing I want is the doubt that motivates a search for more wisdom when the path is clear or the confidence to stop searching when the path is unclear.

Of course, the challenge is that whether the path will prove clear can't be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.

* Regretted yeses and no's are false positives and negatives. A regretted yes is simply a yes you regret having said.  For example, saying "yes I can change this" when it turned out you couldn't. The more wisdom you've got, the fewer regretted yeses and no's.

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Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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