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Sarah Chana Radcliffe

We can only be sure that we can never be sure

Wednesday, January 09, 2019



t’s hard for me to make decisions for myself or my family. What if I make a mistake? I could be stuck with an uncomfortable bed or the wrong neighborhood for years. You just have to get it right because getting it wrong can be disastrous.

Yes, sometimes that’s true. Often, however, the negative effects of a particular decision can be addressed and corrected in one way or another. There may be a financial loss or a loss of time and a cost of effort, but in the end, one can often comfortably live with the solution. Things don’t have to be perfect all the time in order for us to survive and thrive. In fact, they can’t be.


Constant Anxiety

The need to be certain causes constant anxiety. There is a mismatch between reality — the fact that we can never know for sure — and the desire for certainty. Children sometimes attempt to address their vulnerability by asking for guarantees. “What time will you pick me up from school? Will you be there for sure? What if you’re late? Promise me you’ll be on time.”

Parents who offer false promises (“Yes, I’ll be there — I’m always there, aren’t I?”) actually increase the child’s level of ongoing anxiety. Since the parent isn’t controlling any aspect of the world —including traffic conditions, weather, world circumstances, and other people — the parent can never promise to arrive on time.

The true answer can never be more than “I’ll do my best and, if Hashem wants it, I’ll be there on time.” But this sort of answer leaves an anxious child unsatisfied; she wants certainty. Uncertainty leaves her feeling overwhelmed and helpless.


Confidence in Coping

The truth is that the quest for “certainty” is really the quest for a positive outcome. The person lacks confidence that he will be able to cope with any other scenario. However, through successfully negotiating life’s difficulties, both children and adults learn that life continues onward despite setbacks, struggles, hurts, and disappointments.

Parents can help children and themselves by answering the “what if?” questions with acknowledgment and acceptance of pain:

“What if they don’t like me?” Then that will hurt.

“What if I don’t get accepted to the seminary I want to get into?” That will be very disappointing.

“What if I say the wrong thing?” It happens. You’ll regret it and feel bad.

Facing and accepting negative emotion can often be followed by offering coping strategies as well:

“What if they don’t like me?” Then that will hurt. You will be sad for awhile and at the same time you can look around to find others to get to know and enjoy.


Thinking Positively

Worriers habitually entertain negative thoughts; they fret about the possibility that things won’t go well. “What if they don’t like me?” seems to be a reasonable question from their point of view. It seems necessary to these children and grownups to entertain the negative possibility and the constant habit of doing so builds strong neural pathways that guarantee more of the same. Sometimes, to encourage such people to give at least equal time to the possibility of a positive outcome, parents and spouses can give a nudge in the other direction. “What if I don’t get the job?” Yes, that could happen, and then you’d be disappointed and sad for a while. What will happen if you do get it?

Just asking that question leads the worrier back to a positive place in her brain, altering the well-worn inner road of negative focus. “Then I’d be happy!” It invites her to at least consider the possibility that something good could happen. When she resorts back to the negative scenario immediately after, however, (“But what if I don’t get it?”), the response is again “Then you’d be sad.”

Refusing to be more reassuring conveys that being sad is a passing feeling and not the end of the world. It can be spoken about. It can be looked at. It is a normal part of life. Naming it also signals the end of the conversation. There are no false promises to utter, no desperate attempts to cheer anyone up. It’s easier on you while it forces your loved one’s anxious mind to settle in with reality. And if you’re worried about your loved one getting all sad without your familiar reassurances — well, yes that could happen. And you’d be unhappy about that for awhile. And then maybe you could just watch and see over time whether your loved one becomes more and more comfortable with uncertainty and copes better and better with life’s challenges.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 625)

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