The Moral High Ground of Uncertainty

Wanda Waterman

Of course we all want certainty, and there’s no blame in that. Financial security, physical safety, political stability, a dependable justice system, and having a fairly accurate idea of what the near (or even far) future might bring comprise a parcel of life benefits for which we ought to strive.

Certainty provides a tranquil backdrop for the unfurling of our lives, and this is a definite advantage. In our most altruistic moments this sense of certainty is the thing we’d most like to pass on to the unfortunate. And the more safe and comfortable we are the better we’re equipped to offer safety and comfort to others.

But the achievement of comfort and security poses a moral risk. We can see this when we observe those we know who have achieved them. At their best the comfortable exert themselves to ensure that the certainty of their lives can be accessible to all. But at their worst members of the middle and upper classes see the possession of financial security as a virtue in itself, an evidence of their superior value as human beings. The rather convoluted thought stream goes something like this:

My job is secure, and I earn a salary that is more than adequate to my basic needs. This is my reward for being a virtuous civic entity, something I couldn’t afford to be if I didn’t make so much money. Those who don’t earn salaries like mine have only themselves to blame. If I help them a little I’m a paragon of virtue, but if I help them too much I’ll only be enabling weakness, dependence, and bad habits. It matters not that my salary is indirectly dependent on their labour; I am here and they’re there, and so it must remain. It’s what keeps me and mine  safe.

Opening your arms to the unknown

Meanwhile the farmer, the ditch digger, the grocery deliverer, the cleric, the artist, and the musician, all as necessary to the healthy functioning of society as the doctor and teacher (some more so by virtue of superior efforts), are living a hand-to-mouth and fickle existence, not because their work is less valuable but because it’s undervalued.

Those who live with uncertainty will commonly suffer the loss of a job, or health, or important funding, with no apparent means of making up the impending shortfall. Those among them whose hearts sicken in despair can’t be reproached (although they should perhaps be forewarned) for abandoning themselves to addictive substances and behaviors, but others will guard their courage, looking for solutions while trusting that their needs will somehow be met.

You’ll learn, if you take the time to ask this latter group, that life comes to their aid again and again, in ways that can’t have been anticipated. Just when they’re looking down a dark hole a light shines and all is well again. Given the uncertainty of their lives and the self-righteous apathy of large swathes of the higher classes, if such “miracles” didn’t happen many of the lower classes would die of starvation. It’s no wonder that religious faith is invariably stronger among the working poor; they’ve experienced divine intervention, and they know it.

The pitiable poverty of the wealthy and secure

One can only feel sorry for the trust fund child or the tenured physicist or the prosperous lawyer. Because no spaces of uncertainty are likely to open in their lives, there’s little room for unexpected blessings. Uncertainty is an invitation to life to come and fill it with whatever treasures life deems suitable.

There’s no place in this paradigm for self-congratulation, which vanishes in the face of the awareness that this good thing that has arrived, although partly instigated by your efforts, would never have arrived had your moment of need not opened the door to it.

Sure, aim for comfort and security in your life, but go ahead and do what you love. Never trade your passion for certainty; the moral compromise might just poison your soul.








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