Why Hope is Better Than Certainty

Apr 19, 2019

According to the FBI’s report on Operation Varsity Blues , parents were certain that paying thousands—even millions—of dollars to a fixer would guarantee entrance to elite universities.

Among the very wealthy families caught in the investigation are two high-profile celebrities. Oscar-nominated actress, Felicity Huffman, plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and fraud earlier this week. But former Full House actress, Lori Loughlin and her designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, say they were scammed and pled not guilty to charges of mail fraud and money laundering conspiracy.

Results from the investigation may lead to jail time for the parents and disciplinary action from colleges involved.

In the court of public opinion many people are having a moment of schadenfreude—taking pleasure from someone’s misfortune. In this case it’s the misfortune of rich people getting caught lying, deceiving and bribing admissions officials. The story is tabloid fodder: the downfall of the wealthiest of the wealthy.

We at Productive Learning see Operation Varsity Blues differently. We see this as a case study in the downside of certainty. This news story is really about what it means when we cast our bets on certainty instead of investing in our sincere hope.

The parents in Operation Varsity Blues were certain that if they paid enough money to a fixer their kids would happily attend prestigious colleges. They were willing to compromise any sense of personal values, to break laws and to corrupt a process that is fraught with problems.

Certainty is something we’re constantly seeking. There’s something innate in humans that wants to know what’s coming, what to expect—that way we can fend off danger and stay in control. These parents operated under the illusion they were controlling things that were never under their control because no amount of money can buy certainty. None of the parents would’ve guessed that the investigation started with a tipster charged with a crime that had nothing to do with them.

Certainty is why we stress over having a Plan B (and C and D)—“just to be certain.” In a way, certainty can help us cover our bases. But when do we let go? Remember all those colleges you applied to? Or, when you let opportunity go by because you were certain something better would come along?

If there’s one thing we’re all guilty of it’s believing so ardently in certainty. How many people were certain they’d stay married to the same person for a lifetime? Maybe some of you were certain you’d retire comfortably and then 2008 happened. Three careers ago you were certain you’d chosen the right career but—like the parents in Operation Varsity Blues—you were duped by certainty.

Our need to be certain is sneaky. It thinks it’s helping us build stability but when we let it guide us blindly, it only blinds us to faith. Certainty is false. Certainty makes us believe we’re in absolute control. Certainty has us writing our script and walking through life as if life will stick to it.

When something happens that breaks or questions our Holy Script of Certainty we fall apart. We get angry with others, we blame circumstance, we predicate on self-pity. We may even have the audacity to think we’ve lost faith (which we never exercised). Certainty is an act of fear. We’re scared of losing control.

The antidote to certainty is faith but the road to faith is paved with hope. Hope helps us to let go of our rigid attachments to our script. Hope leaves room for us to accept outcomes as they are. Hope lets us know that our control is limited to our thoughts and actions and frees us to allow in faith.

As part of our series on writing love letters to our emotions, this month we make peace with certainty:

Dear Certainty,

In my hunt for clarity and feeling in control, I tend to cling to you. I get that in the pandemonium of life, certainty has been my desire to understand things as a way to ease my anxiety. You gave me moments when I didn’t have to worry about an unwanted outcome because I thought I had it all in control. But these moments were so fleeting!

The truth is that I’ve desired you because I craved a longer rest period from life’s chaos. Those periods came when I could sigh relief because I was certain things would turn out ok. But, you’re an illusion, along with those fleeting moments of respite. I gambled on silly deals and bet on my script because it made me feel certain. Yet, all I was holding was an illusion of being in control.

Now, I’m willing to shred my script. I’m willing to do what I need to do and hope for the best. I’m willing to accept ‘what is’ knowing that I can ONLY control my reactions to whatever will be.

So where do I invest my certainty?

One place: the goodness of the human spirit. Despite what’s on the evening news, I’m certain there’s much good left in the world. Wasn’t it Mr. Rogers who said that in times of trouble we should look for the helpers? I’m certain I’ll always find some.

I’ll use certainty in very measured doses. Yes, it’s wise for my kid to apply for various colleges but I will hang on to hope instead of gluing myself to acceptance letters from Yale, Harvard or Stanford.  

Life, after all, is an act of weathering chaos and the only way to give respite a permanent home in my life is by choosing hope while carving out my path toward faith. Life, after all, is an act of weathering chaos and the only way to give respite a permanent home in my life is by choosing to place my certainty where it derives to live. I can be certain I will grow no matter the outcome. I can be certain that I can find support because it is always out there. I can be certain that no circumstance in life will ever break my spirit unless I chose to let it.

The rest I leave to hope and faith. I hope the outcomes in my life are the way I want them, I have faith everything will be ok in the end because I am certain that when the outcome looks bleak that I will do what it takes to move forward with love and joy because that is always in my hands to control.

In solidarity with the best of myself,