CERTAINTY AND OPINIONS
Few seem to know the difference between certainty and strongly held opinion. The difference is not one of logic, elegance of proofs, documentation, etc. Applicability of conclusions is a result of certainty. Certainty works. But certainty precedes workability.
Certainty is an ability to confront (be there comfortably with and aware of a great breadth of what is here and now and to be aware, in what is now, of what has been and will be, and to be aware, in what is here, of what is elsewhere. It is an unflinching awareness, broad, but neither dispersed nor fixed. It is like the vision of one who, while driving down the road, is aware of the trees whipping past the peripheries of vision on either side and of clouds passing overhead without losing awareness of what is directly before him.
[This is perhaps a physical analog for taking responsibility for both cause and effect, since the eyes of most predators face forward, while the eyes of prey look to either side. Awareness can take both viewpoints at once.]
It is an awareness devoid of any compulsion to act or alter or withdraw or rationalize. It does not inhibit action, but is the ground of sane, creative action. It is the ability to be here, and includes the ability to choose not to be here. It is an ability that is not in search of a self to exercise it or be defined by it.
When we see great ability in action—for example, the perfection and instantaneousness of an athlete’s moves or a pianist’s—we are looking at certainty.
Certainty may entertain opinions, juggle them, shake them about, like a child with a new toy, but a strongly held opinion is something one creates to confront the world in place of oneself. Something nasty or spectacular happens, and we are immediately bombarded by thousands of opinions, elaborate constructions designed to confront the world on behalf of their contrivers and of those who lock onto someone else’s congenial opinions. Certainty? No. A rigidity precludes certainty, since what is is the child of ceaseless change.
There’s a W. H. Auden poem about the death of William Butler Yeats that speaks of how “What instruments we have agree the day of his death was a dark cold day.” It’s an interesting poem, since it moves from that flimsy semblance of certainty (mechanical measurers of change in agreement) to greater certainties, by way of many degrees of gossip and opinion. I think of that poem when something impresses the populace, and the inevitable opinions spring up, each in accord with the speaker’s long-cultivated slant.
Opinions are jittery things, trembling from the opposed efforts of our clinging to them. They lack the stillness that can register change, perceive to and beyond the periphery of eyes. Certainty is not the same as certainty OF something. Certainty knows what it knows and does not know what it does not know, and if asked about what it does not know, will KNOW it does not know.
This not-knowing is not uncertainty. It is one more bit of here and now to confront, perhaps an opportunity, an invitation to look, to expand, to have a game, and ultimately, it is a decision not to know. There is no compulsion to know. Those who live and die by opinions (expert or not) feel endangered by not knowing something and thumb hectically through their opinions, looking for a comfortable supposition.
An opinion can be subtle, brilliant, embracive, well-argued, fierce, based on what the authorities say or on an insistence of being independent of all authority—it can be whatever WE can be. But the force that attracts opinions to us, the glue that sticks them to us, the fervor with which we become our opinions is all of a sameness like muck or tar, variegated only in the exact proportions of apathy, grief, fear, rage and boredom that compound each opinion.
I rather enjoy the PLAY of opinions. I don’t mean by that the trivialization or joking about opinions (though that too can be fun). I mean the spirit of play. An opinion is a creation, after all. But I do find that over time I grow weary of having to have opinions and having to assert them (or the implication that this is needed). I think we hold strong opinions largely as a defense against the strong opinions of others, and that, sufficiently bombarded by opinions we feel we need to contend with (so as not to be considered idiots), we start to assert and gradually to BECOME our opinions. Certainty is close to what we are, far closer than opinions.
After awhile I tend to disconnect, and all the opinionizing becomes a monotone background noise like the muttering of a ragged, rigidly staring woman as she pushes her shopping cart full of rags and plastic bottles along the sidewalk. And boy! Does SHE have strong opinions!
It’s not a matter, primarily, of the accuracy or negativity of the opinions. It’s the imitation (really a parody) of certainty and the insistence or the implication that I should know the truth of something that I don’t know, that any idiot knows what I don’t know. And that momentary feeling that, if some opinion doesn’t feel true to me, I am obligated to come up with the truth of a counter-opinion and form my own strong opinions about something that, perhaps, I don’t consider important.
But mainly it’s my feeling that we too often forget that opinions are opinions, at which point opinions become sticky things that tend to leave one cluttered. Then they are no fun.
The moments when I’ve known certainty (been certain of it) were moments free of opinion, free, mostly, of words, of thought, moments of simply being here. When I feel dogged by opinions, my mind a gabble of arguments and counter-arguments, I stand still, look about me, or simply become aware of being aware, as if rejoining a timeless part of myself, and become cleansed of opinions, and more able to create my own opinions and dispense with them.
Interesting word “opinion” – apparently not sharing a derivation with “pinion,” and yet it makes me think, “O pinions!” Pinion means a wing and also a feather. It also means a fetter, something that cripples or impedes motion – you might say the opposite of a wing. This is because removing or damaging certain wing feathers so that a bird can’t fly is to pinion the bird—much as when someone wounds a bird with a gunshot, he “wings” it. So I imagine that one who seeks to soar on opinions will find himself quickly grounded. A pinion is also a cog on a gear, part of the machinery, part of the grind, the instruments that agree. The “right opinion” is a goddess as elusive and attractive as luck. Birds of a fetter flock to get her.
Imagine a certainty as vast as the universe and infinitely lighter and more pervasive than air. Imagine hammering it on all sides for trillennia, pounding it down to a condensation the size and solidity of a doorknob or a tumor or a brain surrounded by thick bone…and you have an opinion strongly held.
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