Are You Willing to Live on a Maybe?

Life’s possibilities can be as daunting as its realities.

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Some people are willing to act only when they are certain of the results. These people thoroughly research and work every possible scenario, engage in deliberation, and then act in a very careful way. Perhaps it is a desire for order and certainty—no maybes—which in turn provides stability and happiness. These people who play it safe will most often color within the lines of their lives. They have a very low tolerance for uncertainty. Put another way, their uncertainty threshold is quite low.

Playing it safe, or at least trying to do so, is often a prudent course of action, especially when too many areas of life are full of uncertainty and instability. But always trying to play it safe comes with its own risks. As much as a person can anticipate scenarios and try to guard against particular ones, there are many factors well beyond a person’s control. If uncertainty is a cause of unhappiness, the person who plays it safe is vulnerable to great unhappiness and even despair.  People who play it safe may also tend to contract their world in the hopes of keeping it certain and stable. Being unwilling to explore possibilities, they lose opportunities for happiness. There may be happiness in trying something new or different, even if it doesn’t bring the anticipated result.

Other people love the novel, the uncertain, and possibilities over known certainties. The maybes hold all the potential. They are more interested in what’s outside the lines rather than what’s within. Spontaneity is more their nature; certainty and stability may feel disappointing, boring, or confining. The spontaneous sort has a very high uncertainty threshold; they won’t be governed by worries about what future possible harms or disappointments might come to pass.

Always trying to live life spontaneously comes with risk. A person seeking the novel or the different may never experience happiness in what he has because he believes there is something better. He’s like the person who keeps switching the channel on the TV looking for a better show even though there were a few that looked interesting for the few moments he watched. Trying to live spontaneously can also expand a person’s world to the point where everything feels in flux with no solid footing to keep balance.

A person’s uncertainty threshold is directly related to their faith. I am using “faith” in a much broader sense than belief in religious entities or bigger universal order. Faith can be about anything; I can have faith in institutions (I have faith the courts will uphold the rule of law), other people (I have faith this person will keep her promise), and myself (I have faith I will always do my best to be honest). The hallmark of faith, according to William James, is to believe in and act from possibility. Faith is a willingness to live in possibility and act on the maybes.

Maybes and possibilities are the essence of human life. We have to deal as much with possibilities as we do facts; they are unavoidable. Part of being human is negotiating and living with uncertainties at the same time we generate certainties. James writes,

It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true.

A simple example will help to demonstrate. Imagine you are hiking and you’ve got to jump across a stream. Doubting and mistrusting you can make it will change your action; you might hesitate for a split second. Doubt and mistrust, like faith, are living attitudes that are woven right into our actions.  Believing and trusting you can make it gives you a much better chance. Hesitation won’t hinder your launch. There’s no guarantee, but you’ve got a better chance of making it a fact that you cross the stream if you have faith you can.

A more complicated example involves people who are trying to stop using drugs or change their harmful uses. A person may have faith that he can make it through this next hour. He can do things that keep him away from drugs or alcohol so that he doesn’t have the opportunity to use. He makes the fact that he didn’t use this past hour. Then he does it again; he stays away from using drugs for another hour. These facts support his faith, which in turn will help him to make new facts about his use. Here, too, there is no guarantee or certified result.  A person has a better chance of not using if he has faith—understood as a willingness to live in the possibility—he can stop using.

William James explored living on maybes and possibilities in the context of a lecture he delivered in 1895 titled, “Is Life Worth Living?” For those who are deeply pessimistic about their own worth or the worth of life itself, the question is pressing. Many are inclined toward a negative answer; life is not worth living. James has these people in mind throughout his lecture. People who want to answer "no" to that question are no strangers to him. James recognizes the darkness, pessimism, and melancholia because he himself struggled with them at different points in his life. He concludes his discussion by arguing life does feel like a real fight and that each of us is part of the fight. We don’t know if there is any afterlife or heavenly reward; those are uncertified results. We have the here and now. James counsels us, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

To have faith is to grab a hold of a maybe or a series of maybes about matters small (crossing a stream) and great (continuing to live).  People who play it safe will be reluctant to grab hold of a maybe; they lack sufficient faith. People who crave novelty and spontaneity lack faith in a different way; they will grab hold of all maybes but not live in ways to make them facts.  

References

James, William. (1895). Is Life Worth Leading. Available online https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft_djvu.txt