Quest for Certainty

The tragic events of this past Tuesday weigh heavily upon us all. Some bear the horror of that event more personally than others. There is an almost universal searching for comfort, answers and action. Everywhere writers and analysts speculate as to what the outcome of these events should be or will be. Others openly share their pain and grief. It is the topic of countless media outlets, as well as the central discussion around dinner tables, offices and bedrooms.

Rather than echo what others have said far more eloquently than I could hope to do, I would like to attempt to offer a framework for understanding how such an horrific event can take place ("How can human beings act in such a manner?") and what effect this event will have on our future.

For the last few months, I have been reflecting at length upon the human need for Certainty. I have done so not in an attempt to understand an economic outcome, although the Quest for Certainty has profound economic implications which we will explore next week. Rather, I have been trying to discern the base nature of relationships both personal and Divine.

Certainty, I am coming to conclude, seems to be a direct human need, much as food or love or sex. The Quest for Certainty drives us to work, to act, to love and hate and cooperate. It can drive us to fear or inspire us to trust. In its aberrant forms, it can drive us apart from that which we most desire. Like any base need, it can both help or harm. Come with me as we explore a few aspects of the Quest for Certainty, and see its implication in the recent tragic events. I may seem to wander rather far afield, but I will, however uncertainly, attempt to bring us home to a "certain" conclusion.

I have been searching for a way to explain what I mean by Certainty. It may be most easily understood in the context of marriage. Marriage by its very nature is a relationship of trust. It is also one of cooperation. What man or woman amongst us has not over-stepped the boundaries of simple rules for cooperation within a marriage and tried to define the nature of relationship with a desire to control? "You will not talk to that person" or "you will be home at 6 pm" or "you will believe like I believe" or a thousand other ways in which we desire our partners to behave in ways that conform to our needs.

In our desire to seek certainty within our marriage, to bring things into our control, we take the joy from our partners of allowing them to freely give of themselves to us. We rob them of their freedom. In its most rude and outrageous forms, we become controlling demons and our partners abused shells of human sadness. What joy or love is there in such a relationship?

However, when we learn to relax in the love of our partner, trusting their character to act in love in their actions toward us, the blossom of marriage is at its fullest. Love is, after all, willing the highest good for another.

Paradoxically, the more we attempt to unilaterally define the relationship to meet our needs, the less satisfying the marriage becomes. Ironically, the very definition -- the Quest for Certainty within the marriage relationship -- is what makes the marriage less certain.

The certainty is within the character of our partner, and not with any rules of deportment.

I am not implying that there are not boundaries, or that any action should be tolerated. If there has to be a rule "You will not sleep with anyone but me" then the character of the partner that requires such a rule within the relationship is flawed. The certainty of the sanctity of the relationship flows from character and not from rules. To the extent there have to be rules, the foundation of the relationship is weak.

And yet, certainty within a marriage is crucial. I have a need to be accepted for who I am by my wife, and vice versa. That is in spite of our flaws and problems. No man is an island, no matter how much we try and prove otherwise. We need to feel certain of each other's true love and commitment.

This week my wife called me back after a phone conversation. Hesitatingly, she told me that the way I say good-bye at the end of a phone conversation is not the most pleasant. I had allowed my sometimes busy business nature to seep over into my phone etiquette, to the point of being seen as curt. Sadly, it had become habit.

I could respond in many ways. I could choose to be offended or to explain the problem away. But I chose to remember that one of my wife's life credos is to not criticize, condemn or complain. Rather than criticizing, she was helping me realize that other people might get the wrong impression from my rather abrupt ending of a phone conversation that I do not care about them.

If I did not trust her love, and know her character, I could have been hurt. If there had been a rule, written or unwritten, that she could not offer insights into my personality for my benefit, I would have been the loser. Likewise, she had to trust me that I would not respond in anger. But by trusting her, I give her the freedom to help me.

And yes, there was some uncertainty in how I would react. I am not always so "understanding". But she felt certain of my love, and chose to act in my best interest.

She could have given me a Rule: You will be polite when you hang up the phone. And thereafter, every time I hang up the phone, I would be under the weight of that law. Whether or not I followed her dictates, I would be aware of the Rule.

It is not that it would be a bad Rule. In fact, it would be a very good one. But I choose to make it a freely given response to her loving suggestion (although she will, from time to time, (gently I am sure) assist me in my efforts to improve my conversational habits).

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If she attempted to make a big deal out of it, invoking a Rule, it would have been unpleasant. I would have survived, as would our marriage. In the grand scheme of things, it is no big deal.

But what if there were an avalanche of rules? At some point, as my Dad would say, "It goes from preaching to meddling." It becomes onerous, and the relationship would begin to harden into rules and trying to obey the rules, avoid the rules and break the rules behind her back.

And of course, what about my response? If she wants to get into a rule-setting contest, I think I could win that one. So we launch into an attempt to regulate the behavior of each other. In and of themselves, each of the rules might be good, if petty. But by defining the relationship beyond the needs for basic cooperation (I will be home at 6 for supper or I will call), I hurt the relationship. While the causes of this need for certainty like jealousy, poor self-esteem, poor example of marriage by our parents are understandable, it nevertheless causes the relationship to be less than it can be.

This need for certainty is part and parcel of every relationship in our lives. What can damage a child more than being uncertain of the love of their mother? Indeed, the loss of a parent is easier to deal with than the abandonment of a parent. The true tragedy of divorce is often the creation of uncertainty within the children.

Who has not felt the betrayal of friends? What more heinous crime than that of being a traitor. The name of Benedict Arnold is not remembered kindly. Without going into a hundred examples, the Quest for Certainty can be seen everywhere.

And the result is always the same. The more our certainty is based upon rules than it is upon character, the less satisfying and affirming the relationship.

What a great pleasure we receive from the certainty of love and acceptance of spouse, family and friends. That is why we seek out such and work to maintain these relationships. Because it is in these certain relationships that we find affirmation and self-esteem.

And that is what drives the Quest for Certainty. Ultimately, it is a desire for safety and acceptance, for love and security. But within the very desire itself is the root of the potential destruction of the relationship.

The Certainty of God

But how does that help explain the tragedy of Tuesday?

Because just as an attempt to improperly define a relationship with a spouse, child or friend can cause serious problems, the Quest for Certainty with our God can create even bigger issues.

Again, what is more certain about God than His character? We all are recipients of His love, Mercy and Grace.

Every religious view, small and great, animist, atheist or theistic attempts to define the relationship of God and man. Rather than attempting to comment on the certainty of one religious view over another, let's look at some of the common characteristics in the attempts of religious definition.

Each view, even those who deny the existence of a Higher Power, seeks to deal with that part of our nature which seeks to know - to be certain - of how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

For the most part, these teach us universal principles. The Golden Rule has been stated by many faiths and in many ways. Each world view further attempts to reveal the nature of their god and his character. In the Quest for Certainty we take comfort in our understanding of how we relate to God. For some, this drive to know God is stronger than in others, and inspires them to lives of service and devotion. Each man's response is his own.

But in every religion there seems to be some whose Quest for Certainty takes them to extremes.

At the end of each extreme is the common characteristic of defining Truth about God in a very narrow fashion. It is only our Chosen group which truly has been granted a proper understanding of the Truth: "God Bless us four, and no more."

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Typically, this means defining other groups as less than human, not worthy of association, the benefits of civilization or deserving of life. And of course, these groups have been chosen to deal justice to those not worthy. In the case of some Muslim extremists, it can be that Americans are less than human, even if they are Muslim.

(It is not just Muslim extremists who carry this disease. It can be those Christian extremists who define blacks as less than human. I can think of Hindu and Buddhist examples as well. Communism, in every sense of the word, was a religion that justified the taking of life in the name of its own god. History is replete with examples.)

Of course, just as the setting of too many rules in a marriage destroys the relationship because it seeks to manipulate the other person, the establishment of too many rules in a religion destroys the potential for a relationship with Creator, because the definitions at their very heart seek to manipulate God.

God resists manipulation. I believe the reason God had such harsh declarations about witchcraft and magic in the Bible was that they are in essence attempts to manipulate God by using "rules" (stand in the circle or specific chants, potions, etc.) to get God to perform at the behest of the magician.

Much of religion is tainted with rather benign attempts to create certainty. Most of us, myself included, are guilty of some attempt to bargain with God to get Him to bless our actions. (Example: Rather than bringing tithes and offerings joyously and freely God, we give $100 to some group in the name of God hoping that God will give us $1,000 in return. If we pray long enough, or do certain things, we hope to gather God's favor for our cause.)

This is mostly harmless, at least to society at large. However, just as we must learn to trust our partners if we want to enjoy the best of a marriage relationship, we also must learn to relax and trust the character of God, in that He loves us completely and with total acceptance.

The extremist, however, while proclaiming his fervor for God, rather than being able to relax and trust the character of God to love us in such a way as to seek our highest good, shows his actual distrust of God by seeking to further and further define God in such a way that God favors him and his fellow believers above all others. Perversely, the very Quest for Certainty for a God who loves us causes one to go to extremes by seeking to become part of the chosen few who truly are loved of God.

It is hard for those who come from broken family relationships to relax within a marriage. They have to work harder to make a marriage bloom.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the potential for religious extremism is found in those who feel rejected, whether that rejection is factual or not. It should come as no surprise that there are those who can manipulate this rejection by offering acceptance (certainty) within a group who believe in a cause. And it should come as no surprise that at its limits, the definitions of a religious (or any type) of fanatic eventually come to justify any action in the name of their self-defined god.

The leaders of these groups tell their followers they are part of the chosen few, and thus are qualified to pass judgement upon those not in the circle. In the end, their definition of God and His relationship with man has no touch with what was once a sincere effort to find a relationship with a Higher Power.

And it is an aberrant Quest for Certainty that starts these individuals down that path. It is a misunderstanding of the character of God that fosters the seeds of fanaticism.

(As an aside, the feeling of being chosen is not limited to religious impulses. I have known more than a few politicians who, upon being elected, decided they had been elected to be the voice of the people. In fact, I know more than a few un-elected politicians who feel so chosen.

I do not think they understand what the word chosen means. To be chosen in its very nature is to be called to serve those whom one has been chosen from among. Most leaders are self-chosen, or end up thinking their calling is to be master rather than servant.)

Our National Uncertainty

The Act of War committed last Tuesday has shaken our national certainty in ways we have yet to comprehend. Because as we each go about our daily lives, seeking certainty, we have been reminded that nothing is certain.

On Monday, we woke up believing that even if there was a recession, life would go on much as it has for the past 50 years. We would love and live and work as we have in the past. If we lost a job we would get another. If our investments went down, they would eventually go back up. We felt safe. We relaxed in the ability of our government to protect us, and in the ability of the economy (or the government) to provide us the means to certainly find food, clothes and shelter.

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On Tuesday, that changed. As I watched families being torn apart and acquaintances almost certainly dying, I am not the only one who called wife, family and friends to enjoy the certainty of their love, the affirmation that we were still alive and together.

Even as we watched in horror, we eventually began to think about the certainty of our lives. I am not the only one who recalled how often I have been in those mighty towers, visiting companies who were now no more, and thinking that there but for the Grace of God. My oldest son called, worried that for some reason, I might have gone once again to New York.

As much as we strive to provide certainty to our lives and to those of our loved ones in the form of love, support and material goods, we were presented Tuesday with a graphic demonstration that human life is all to uncertain and fragile.

Some in recent days have said this uncertainty will lead to recession. It may. Others have said it will lead to loss of freedoms. It may. Others predict the most dire of futures and the end of the world as we know it. I doubt it.

Never before in the history of the world has a nation provided a generation with such freedom from the aberration of extremism. Never before in the history of the world has a nation provided a generation with such seeming economic certainty and prosperity. Now, these seem uncertain. It would be easy to write of woe and doom to come.

However, I look at the response of the nation this week, and I am inspired. Even as we face uncertain economic and political futures, we begin to reflect upon what is certain and what is more important: the certainty of the love of family and friends, the certainty that is within the love of country and the certainty of the acceptance and love of our God.

Who among us does not feel more unified with their fellow Americans? And by this I mean a true unity, one that is not defined by total agreement, but in a unity based upon what we do together believe in, and a willingness to ignore the minor differences.

Marveling at the willingness of our fellow citizens to sacrifice even their very lives has nurtured within all of us a desire to be part of that greater certainty which is the foundation for a free people. It has reminded us that there are certain things that are worth our sacrifices.

Such moments provide a definition for a generation. My father's generation, who learned their cultural identity in the horrors of World War II, is slowly passing. Their children, who were taught the principals, did not know them viscerally as did those who witnessed the sacrifice and courage of that generation. For us, they were wise words, but removed from our direct senses.

And now, our nation has the opportunity to once again feel that unity of purpose. Every time in our nation's history when the future of this nation has been uncertain, the people of our country have reflected upon what is truly certain and important, and have been made the stronger for it.

In watching the response of the nation to the bringing of the scourge of War to our shores, in seeing the resolve of our nation to withstand the tyranny of terrorism, to rip it out branch and root, I think we will ultimately see a nation made stronger and more free.

America has been chosen to be a light for freedom, but we must make certain our goal is one of service. If our response to terrorism is not only to seek its destruction, but to help those tempted by its siren call to find certainty and acceptance in more fruitful ways, we will have ennobled a generation.

If by observing the results of the extremes of hate, we can learn to love those who are different, and realize that the differences are created by old rules which should no longer have meaning, we will become far more than we have been. If we can learn to look at what unites us, rather than our differences, and teach our children to do so, we will leave the world a better place for their children.

And, most important, if we can learn to trust the character of our Creator, allowing Him to work in our lives, we will have a nation which is truly at Peace.


My prayers go out to those who lost family and friends. This has been a difficult week for us all, but I cannot even conceive of how I would feel if my wife or son or daughter were lost in such a senseless event. I hope this letter has helped you think. Feel free to respond, and if you think it appropriate, forward this to your friends. They can get next week's follow-up letter by simply going to and typing in their email address.

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Next week, we will look at the economic consequences of the Quest for Certainty. I will once again return to the mundane exercise of analyzing our economic future. Even without the events of this week, I believe that the very nature of long-term investment patterns and styles will be profoundly changed, and those who wait too long to realize the change will not be as happy as those who take advantage of the changes. This week will only accelerate those changes.

Your Certain of His Love Analyst,

John Mauldin Thoughts from the Frontline
John Mauldin

P.S. If you like my letters, you'll love reading Over My Shoulder with serious economic analysis from my global network, at a surprisingly affordable price. Click here to learn more.


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