I have been thinking this morning of certainty. In the last chapter of The Art of Listening Les Back addresses the process of doing a PHD in sociology. After being involved with many grad students doing a doctorate, he comes up with ten aphorisms that reflect bits of wisdom that have. occurred to him about research.

One of them contained a comment that struck me: “Don’t be thrown by the obscure or diffuse nature of what keeps you passionate about what you are doing… the feeling that ‘something isn’t quite right’ in the world [is valuable], or as Rachel Dunkley Jones put it recently, ‘a sense of uncertainty about the things everyone is so certain about’….”

I have this feeling quite often whether at church or in conversations or just listening to people and reading their comments online. I am often repelled by the certainties of  people, thinking quietly to myself that I see it differently. Attempting to not share my own uncertainty unless asked.

Back has obviously dealt with a lot of the same stuff in his life. His descriptions of which academic advisers to avoid rings true to me: avoid ‘the self-absorbed egoist,’ he advises. Avoid ‘mercurial personalities and “academic psychopaths” when looking for someone to read your thesis.

When I think about the reactions I have had to academics over the past few decades, I realize that I have run into these personality types and also people who are very certain in their faith in their own abilities and observations. Sometimes I have learned from these people. Sometimes not. It’s helpful to ponder some of their behavior in light of Back’s wisdom.

Living in a small town in Western Michigan it has recently occurred to me that many but not all of the people I run across here are unusually serious and uptight in their preoccupation with this small world.

I began my time here in Holland in 1987 thinking the place was provincial. Now that the window of the Internet is at our fingertips, I feel like all of us, myself included, have to guard against this tendency since we are connected the way we are.

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