Doubt-and-certainty cartoonA second week of being on call for jury duty and I’ve been thinking about certainty and doubt. Of what am I truly and absolutely certain? And where am I not so sure?

We dance with certainty and doubt in our personal realities and the larger sphere. Within the judicial system, what is “reasonable doubt”? Reasonable according to whom? Within my own carefully organized calendar system, I create an illusion that I know what is going to happen every day. It’s a sham certainty that I enjoy…no doubt.

I heard a Radio Lab show recently called “Are You Sure?”. At the opening, hosts Jad and Robert actually play the sound of certainty and doubt. They splice together pieces of interviews in which their subjects were either sure or they weren’t.

So I ask you: Do you know what doubt and certainty sound like?

No matter how you answered, you answered the question. If you answered, “Yes”, “No”, “Absolutely” or something similar, that is the sound of certainty: crisp, sharp, quick, clear. And if you answered, “Hmmmm, welllll, I…don’t know” or some variation, that is the sound of doubt: wavering, floating, sliding. In musical terms, certainty is rhythmic and doubt is melodic. (The whole show is a fascinating, sometimes wrenching, exploration of three stories of certainty and doubt, and I recommend it highly. But if you don’t have time to listen to the whole piece, just listen to the beginning [0:56 to 2:36]. The snippets, all rolled together really do sound like music.)

We’ve all heard this in conversations: if my friend says, “NO!” that feels much different than if she says, “Umm, well, noooo.” Children learn to read these inflections at infancy. At even the slightest melodic response, they know there is wiggle room and will relentlessly pry into that space like a weed pushing through a cracked sidewalk.

Parenting notwithstanding, it’s healthy to have some clarity in our views but to also have some things that we’re flexible on or unsure about. A life without doubt becomes a rigid thing. Preachers and politicians and the very young sometimes hold to that crisp black and white line. It can be a dangerous place to hang out, that line of certainty. As Billy Joel sings, “the only people I fear are those who never have doubts.” (thanks, Blue!)

We know this distinction in movement. Crisp, precise movements are ones of confidence and conviction. Fluid, wobbly movements are those of hesitation and uncertainty. In the body, too, it’s healthy to have both clarity and fluidity. Know the feeling of both since sometimes sensation will come upon you before intellectual understanding and it can be helpful to know how the impulses feel.

Here’s something to play with: take something that you feel very sure about and ask yourself what it would feel like to be unsure of it. Do it the other way around, too: something that you are uncertain of, unclear, and ask yourself what it would be like to be absolutely sure. Ask yourself a question about a choice that you’ve made, a belief that you hold, or something that you either do or do not have faith in. It can help to answer out loud, like the folks on the Radio Lab show, and see what it feels like to answer differently that you would usually.

As I dive into one more week of jury duty — maybe teaching, maybe not, and choosing our routines randomly — I am definitely feeling both certainty and doubt with every day and with every song. Just as I hear the rhythm and melody in the music, I can feel my certainty and doubt about choreography, too. I’m enjoying reconnecting with the certain, familiar patterns, as well as diving in when I’m not sure what to do. I’ve also discovered some certain, unfamiliar patterns: movements that I’ve not done before but that popped up, clear and sure as lightning bolts.

Certainty and doubt. There is music in it. And wisdom. And things to discover. Experiment and let me know what happens!

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