Seeing the world in absolutes may feel good, but it's no way for us to live

Caleb Walsh illustration

I've been teaching first-year law students, introducing them to core tenets. The phrase — "it depends" — is perhaps the most paramount tool we possess in our profession. Simple and succinct, the sentence signifies: We would be wise to remember that answers, especially to complex questions, are seldom settled matters. We are expected to research the realm of plausible responses and make reasonable assumptions, which means rarely speaking in absolutes. We have a healthy respect, even a reverence for the innumerable assembly of variables.

This can drive people crazy — the non-answer answers, a perpetual purgatory of the always in-between — but being schooled in such an ethos has been a huge benefit. Awareness that context, a comma, framing or a fact can radically alter an outcome is deeply humbling. Acceptance of this premise has made me a better professional and, arguably, a better person.

I'm persuaded (momentarily, anyway) that keeping this orientation will prove fairly aspirational. Weening off the drug of certainty isn't easy because it's extraordinarily innate. Author Judith Glaser tells us, "When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which make you feel good, dominant, even invincible." Yes, flying those massive flags of conviction can feel comforting, I know.

I also realize that many of my peak cringe-worthy memories center on when I was immutable. As a snotty teenager, sporting high-top Ked sneakers (clearly questionable in retrospect), I was briefly intolerable, dripping with sarcasm and over-confidence. My mother, of whose eyes I was most assuredly the apple, confirmed this recollection. And there are those vivid replays ... scenes etched in too great of detail, I assume solely to serve as reminders. Plenty of situations, where ambiguity was my undoing, still resonate. Times when I let the anxiety of the ambiguous win me over, far too focused on what could be to focus on what actually was. Failing to heed Rilke's advice to "live the questions," I clung to meager inferences and made irrational demands for definition. This is akin to asking for a lie, a fallacy of a future that's fixed instead of indeterminate.

But the cringe-worthy can be an exceptional teacher. While certitude can justifiably be an asset, my preference is for its doling in pretty small doses. As I age, taking in the world and its complexities, as truths are revised and rearranged, I've come to appreciate people with a posture of openness, those prone to wonder rather than declare.

There is just so much that we can never fully comprehend, like exponentials, the Universal scope, God(s), or how people can listen to the same political speech and hear completely different messages. How will I know if your blue is my blue? How will I know if we interpret terms the same way, does your "justice" or "fairness" align in lockstep with mine? How will I know if he really loves me (RIP Queen Whitney)?

Though there's so much we cannot know, our wellbeing depends on some approximation. My current theory is based on the rationale that the more care we extend, the better our estimate. So to me, the hallmark of people exhibiting really positive relationships are those who never stop learning about each other. The smartest people are simply the most curious, always shoring up their understanding. Those who live closest to their faith constantly test its application, revisiting how the sacred should show up in this moment. And the most loving parents pay the sharpest attention, soaking up the minutiae composing a child.

It may sound counterintuitive but to be grounded is to make peace with the unknown, embodying psychologically healthy characteristics like adaptivity. There are folks who manage to stay loose, elastic, pliable, rejecting the siren calls of self-righteous rigidity. They take in lots of info — different perspectives, disquieting facts, failures, feedback, even fake news — distill the useful, discard the unhelpful, and let the necessary alter. This is the reason that I'm an absolute sucker for those who offer true apologies. Not the gas-lighting platitudes of "I'm sorry if you feel," "It wasn't my intention to (completely ignoring the outcome)" or "You misinterpreted," but the good, old-fashioned kind, replete with real accountability. Swoon.

I suppose some could see my appreciation for equivocation and contend I lack conviction. It's a fair critique, so I'll allow it, but the jury's out and thus the verdict, still undecided. In the end, I guess it depends (once again) on your hierarchy of values. And when this life comes to its (hopefully quite natural) conclusion, with me smack dab on the precipice of the ultimate unknown, I'd rather have established a right lengthy record of far less conviction than effort, time spent in rapt and thoughtful consideration, contemplating all I've been given. ♦

Inga N. Laurent is a local legal educator and a Fulbright scholar. She is deeply curious about the world and its constructs and delights in uncovering common points of connection that unite our shared but unique human experiences.

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About The Author

Inga Laurent

Inga N. Laurent is a local legal educator and a Fulbright scholar. She is deeply curious about the world and its constructs and delights in uncovering common points of connection that unite our shared but unique human experiences.