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The Hubris of Certainty

It happens so often, doesn’t it? Something burrows its way to the surface of your awareness in the little world of face-to-face, and then you see the same dynamic writing itself across the globe. For instance, I spent Yom Kippur in services with dear friends, grateful for the opportunity to pause, reflect, reorient. One feature of the service was interactive: we were instructed to review a list of personal commitments—a kind of riff on the Ten Commandments—and talk with two strangers about the one that challenged us the most.

For me, it’s always the same: honor your father and mother. By now, after all the work I’ve done on the subject, there’s no evident hurt or anger left. I don’t think the adults in my family set out to damage or exploit me. I’m certain that my young story amounted to collateral damage in the larger epic of their own brokenness, yet another reminder that the law of unintended consequences is almost never broken. I am grateful for the gift of life and the care that was extended to me. I recognize that my own capacity for empathy is rooted in my childhood experiences. I see that I am drawn to others who have been able to assemble good lives from the broken pieces they were dealt. My childhood has long since cohered into a story that helps me move forward as it satisfies my desire to understand.

I’ve worked hard on forgiveness. So far as I can discern, the festering grudge, the thing that lodges in the heart and blocks the flow of life-energy, has long since healed. But honor? To me that is something separate from forgiveness, something earned.

I explained this to my discussion-partners. They exchanged a meaningful look. Then one of them said, “We’re both therapists, and the problem is that you haven’t yet forgiven them. Until you forgive completely, this will get in your way.”

I’m going to skip right over the ethical and professional implications of advice based on a thirty-second exchange, and move on to the next conversation I had on this topic. After services, I related the exchange to a friend whose upbringing was in some ways more catastrophic than my own. “Honor?” he said. “They should cut that one out of the list.” The list of obligations, of course, not options.

It set me to thinking about how certain we can come to be of our own prescriptions, how quickly we can let ourselves diagnose a problem and spit out the remedy when faith in our own rightness is strong enough.

I thought about this experience yesterday when I read Juan Cole’s cautionary essay on intervention in Syria. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard thoughtful and progressive friends endorse military intervention on grounds that Cole characterizes this way: “It is human nature to think, when we see an ongoing great slaughter, that something must be done.” It is easy to read the chilling headlines, to know there is wrong, to feel onself on the side of right, and to instantly prescribe a punishing response.

Cole suggests that faith in our remedies is misplaced. He patiently describes the river of blood set loose by our interventions in Iraq, a remarkably similar situation. He concludes that hubris—that believing our own propaganda about the precision and effectiveness of our military campaigns—is distorting our understanding. “[I]f the US couldn’t stop a civil war and a growing guerrilla war in Iraq while actually running the place,” he writes, “it can’t likely do anything about Syria.”

Cole has a different type of intervention in mind:

"What the US and its allies can do is improve the conditions of the 2 million Syrians displaced abroad, and try to figure ways of getting food and necessities to internally displaced noncombatants. The US hasn’t been bad on refugee aid, but it can do substantially more, as can Europe and the Arab League. Ignoring the plight of a third of the country (the DPs) while strategizing how to scramble fighter-jets is the opposite of humanitarianism."

I have a friend who hates it when one of his questions is answered with another. I think I understand his frustration, and I tend to be accommodating about such things: why annoy a person you care about when a simple adjustment will fix the problem? But on this subject, I can’t change. I don’t know any way to get at truth other than learning more before we prescribe. Whether the subject is highly personal or geopolitical, it seems easier to activate the law of unintended consequences by shooting from the hip, demanding quick answers, and failing to question the assumptions on which they are based.

Based on what I saw in the wonderful film Twenty Feet from Stardom, Lisa Fischer is both incredibly gifted and not remotely touched by hubris. Here’s her recent version of “The Look of Love”.