Misplaced certainties

From about the age of ten I loved photography. My parents’ Kodak Box Brownie camera was as simple as a camera could be, but occasionally I got to push the shutter button, always excited to see (eventually) the photo I’d taken.

But I didn’t have a camera of my own. And I desperately wanted one.

Then, a magazine ran a competition with ten prizes of cameras. All you had to do was answer simple questions and write a slogan for a firm’s product. I begged my mum to let me enter, and together we worked out the answers to the questions. The slogan, which would be the tie-breaker between entrants, was more difficult. You were only allowed about 12 words, but I wrote something like: ‘Tasty Coffee gets you going and keeps you going through the day’. Clearly, my future wouldn’t be in advertising, but mum said the slogan was good, so my entry was posted.

The entry details had said winners would be notified by post soon after the competition closed. My answers were right, and my slogan was brilliant. So I waited for the letter. Mum pointed out that thousands would have entered, so it was unlikely I would have won. But obviously she was wrong. Even if winning was unlikely, it was possible. Within a couple of weeks possible had become probable in my thinking. After two more weeks, probable had become certain. I knew I was a winner, but where was the letter? I hurried home from school every day, and asked my mum: ‘Has the letter come?’ She’d shake her head, and my shoulders would slump. Every day for a month that happened. ‘Any letter?’ – ‘Sorry, no.’ Then my mother took pity on me, and contacted the company who’d run the competition. As gently as she could, she told me I was not one of the winners. I was devastated. I had believed so strongly that I must have won, it had become a certainty.

I had convinced myself something was true which wasn’t. My certainty was misplaced. Not unusual for a child. But it doesn’t happen only with children.

Unjustified certainties can occur at any age and at any time when we let our wishful thinking become more than wishful.

Here are other examples of misplaced certainties.

Prejudice    I went to live in the USA in September 2008, and Barack Obama won the US presidential election eight weeks later. (I don’t claim a connection between my presence and his victory!) The following January Obama was inaugurated as President. His appointment to the highest office in the land was a major conversation item.

I had that conversation with a friend, Sally. Now, Sally was one of the godliest people I’ve ever known, a gracious Christian lady who seemed to love and want to help everyone she knew. But she didn’t seem to have much love for her new President. I asked her if that was simply a difference in politics?

Sally hesitated, looked embarrassed, and then said, ‘I just can’t trust a black man.’

Wow! I hadn’t seen that coming. Perhaps I would if I’d been raised in certain parts of the US. Sally knew her distrust was a contradiction of her Christian principles, but it was a deeply embedded idea with which she’d grown up and which still controlled her thinking.

Prejudice is wrong and often downright shocking. But it’s so innate we may not recognise its existence or find it hard to shake off. It’s one of the worst kinds of misplaced certainty.

Over-rating our own abilities    Have you ever tried to tell someone they’re a bad driver? How did that conversation go? Or, have you ever had a bad boss who knew they were a bad boss? Do you know many preachers or other public speakers who’d admit they’re boring?

  • Most drivers think they’re great drivers; it’s everyone else on the road who make their life difficult.
  • Most bosses think they’re great bosses; they just can’t get equally great staff.
  • Most preachers think they’re great speakers; if only the congregation would stay awake and pay attention.

Some of that may be an exaggeration, but you get my point.

In his 1786 poem To a Louse, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion

Very roughly ‘translated’ it’s a wish for the gift to see ourselves the way others see us, freeing us from blunders and foolish notions.

But we don’t see ourselves as others do. And wishful thinking all too easily gives us a misplaced certainty about how gifted we are.

Over-confidence about our decisions    I hear many news stories about people tricked into parting with their money. Scammers persuade them to invest by promising fantastic returns from bonds or shares. People empty their low interest bank accounts to hand over all their cash. And then it’s gone. At best the investment opportunity was a super-risky venture. At worst, there never was a legitimate investment, just a scheme to give cash to criminals. When those stories are reported, the last question the interviewer asks those who’ve lost their money is: ‘Why didn’t you get an opinion from family or a responsible financial advisor?’ Typically the answer is: ‘I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of the investment. I was so sure this was a wonderful chance, and I didn’t want to miss out.’

‘I was so sure… I didn’t want to miss out.’ Reckless over-confidence about a decision, a misplaced certainty with dire financial consequences.

By no means have I exhausted all forms of misplaced certainty to which any of us might succumb. It’s a weakness we don’t know we have until it’s too late.

Are there avoidance tactics we can use, or ways to diminish the danger? Yes there are. Here are four.

Stop and think.    Rationality can’t be the sole guide for every decision, but mustn’t be excluded from every decision. Our minds are not enemies. Using them is not a failure of faith. Jesus commanded us to love God with ‘all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. (Matthew 22:37) We are meant to think.

Here’s a true but sad story. Four friends felt convinced they should buy a flat. They didn’t have enough money, but were sure the money would come in time. In their gut they felt it right to go ahead. So, in faith, they submitted a binding offer to buy. The money never came, and they couldn’t pay the seller. The flat had to be rushed onto the market for as much as they could get to diminish the large debt they’d incurred.

Impulses and intuitions are both friend and foe. They can serve us well, but they can also tempt us into seriously unwise actions. We need to look (to think) before we leap.

Talk to a real friend.    There are times when protecting your private ideas is just stupid. You can be sure the four friends who went ahead without money to buy a flat wished they’d got good financial advice from an expert or wise friend.

Share your big ideas with someone who knows your abilities, your impulses, your dreams. The temptation is to ask someone guaranteed to agree with you. Avoid them. Ask someone who’ll be ruthlessly honest. A superficial friend will tell you what you want to hear, but a real friend will care enough to tell you what you don’t want to hear.

Slow down.    We live in a fast-paced world, and it seems everything must be decided immediately. Yes, there’s a danger of delay, but also a danger of rushing ahead irresponsibly.

As a youngster I dragged my sledge to the top of a super-steep hill, took one glance, felt the adrenalin, and launched myself on the ride of my life. It was a ride that could have ended my life. What I hadn’t considered was the road at the bottom of the hill. My sledge propelled me down that hill so fast it didn’t stop until I was right in the middle of that road. I scampered out of the way of an oncoming car just in time.

It’s dangerously easy to allow heightened emotions and desires to launch us down hills towards disaster if we go too fast. When we ask someone ‘Are you having second thoughts?’ it seems there’s an implied criticism. There shouldn’t be. There are decisions so consequential that we ought to slow down and have second thoughts.

Be ruthlessly honest.    The more we want something, the more we find arguments to have it. Inconvenient arguments we push aside. That’s the weakness behind a lot of misplaced certainties.

Ruthless honesty is possible because it’s a choice – a choice based on willingness to accept either the conclusion we want or the conclusion we don’t want. In other words, a willingness to accept whichever conclusion is best.

My friend George was minister of a large and growing church which appointed an associate pastor to support George’s work. Some months later George realised his preaching wasn’t going over well with the predominantly student-age congregation who came to evening services. He made the associate the principal preacher for those services. Here’s how George described the outcome to me: ‘It’s wonderful to have my associate preaching at evening services because he’s much better than me and numbers attending are going up’. I was impressed by what George told me; impressed that he’d given his young associate the chance, and impressed he was thrilled about the result. I’m not sure I would have made his decision or reacted so generously at the outcome. But George was a ruthlessly honest man, and he wanted the best for his people whatever that meant.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote this: I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment  (Romans 12:3)

There’s wisdom there: don’t over-rate yourself, and always think with sober judgment. That’s hard, but not impossible.

We’re all prone to misplaced certainty. Our ego wants to believe we excel when we don’t; our will leans towards believing we should have whatever we desire; our hearts are drawn to every opportunity that attracts. So we convince ourselves things are right that aren’t right.

But what’s not right for us is also what’s not good for us. Knowing that – really knowing that – will save us from a lot of foolishness.