Erin sits across from me at the sushi restaurant and tries to explain why she doesn’t believe in death. It’s been almost three hours, and she’s eaten exactly four cucumber rolls and drunk an entire bottle of sake by herself. (In fact, she’s about halfway through bottle number two now.) It’s four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.
I didn’t invite her here. She found out where I was via the Internet and flew out to come find me.
She’s done this before. You see, Erin is convinced that she can cure death, but she’s also convinced that she needs my help to do it. But not my help in like a business sense. If she just needed some PR advice or something, that would be one thing. No, it’s more than that: she needs me to be her boyfriend. Why? After three hours of questioning and a bottle and a half of sake, it still isn’t clear.
My fiancée was with us in the restaurant, by the way. Erin thought it important that she be included in the discussion; Erin wanted her to know that she was “willing to share” me and that my girlfriend (now wife) “shouldn’t feel threatened” by her.
I met Erin at a self-help seminar in 2008. She seemed like a nice enough person. A little bit on the woo-woo, New Agey side of things, but she was a lawyer and had gone to an Ivy League school, and was clearly smart. And she laughed at my jokes and thought I was cute—so, of course, knowing me, I slept with her.
A month later, she invited me to uproot across the country and move in with her. This struck me as somewhat of a red flag, and so I tried to break things off with her. She responded by saying that she would kill herself if I refused to be with her. Okay, so make that two red flags. I promptly blocked her from my email and all my devices.
This would slow her down but not stop her.
Years before I met her, Erin had gotten into a car accident and nearly died. Actually, she had medically “died” for a few moments—all brain activity had stopped—but she had somehow miraculously been revived. When she “came back,” she claimed everything had changed. She became a very spiritual person. She became interested in, and started believing in, energy healing and angels and universal consciousness and tarot cards. She also believed that she had become a healer and an empath and that she could see the future. And for whatever reason, upon meeting me, she decided that she and I were destined to save the world together. To “cure death,” as she put it.
After I’d blocked her, she began to create new email addresses, sometimes sending me as many as a dozen angry emails in a single day. She created fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that she used to harass me as well as people close to me. She created a website identical to mine and wrote dozens of articles claiming that I was her ex-boyfriend and that I had lied to her and cheated her, that I had promised to marry her and that she and I belonged together. When I contacted her to take the site down, she said that she would take it down only if I flew to California to be with her. This was her idea of a compromise.
And through all of this, her justification was the same: I was destined to be with her, that God had preordained it, that she literally woke up in the middle of the night to the voices of angels commanding that “our special relationship” was to be the harbinger of a new age of permanent peace on earth. (Yes, she really told me this.)
By the time we were sitting in that sushi restaurant together, there had been thousands of emails. Whether I responded or didn’t respond, replied respectfully or replied angrily, nothing ever changed. Her mind never changed; her beliefs never budged. This had gone on for over seven years by then (and counting).
And so it was, in that small sushi restaurant, with Erin guzzling sake and babbling for hours about how she’d cured her cat’s kidney stones with energy tapping, that something occurred to me:
Erin is a self-improvement junkie. She spends tens of thousands of dollars on books and seminars and courses. And the craziest part of all this is that Erin embodies all the lessons she’s learned to a T. She has her dream. She stays persistent with it. She visualizes and takes action and weathers the rejections and failures and gets up and tries again. She’s relentlessly positive. She thinks pretty damn highly of herself. I mean, she claims to heal cats the same way Jesus healed Lazarus—come the fuck on.
And yet her values are so fucked that none of this matters. The fact that she does everything “right” doesn’t make her right.
There is a certainty in her that refuses to relinquish itself. She has even told me this in so many words: that she knows her fixation is completely irrational and unhealthy and is making both her and me unhappy. But for some reason it feels so right to her that she can’t ignore it and she can’t stop.
In the mid-1990s, psychologist Roy Baumeister began researching the concept of evil. Basically, he looked at people who do bad things and at why they do them.
At the time it was assumed that people did bad things because they felt horrible about themselves—that is, they had low self-esteem. One of Baumeister’s first surprising findings was that this was often not true. In fact, it was usually the opposite. Some of the worst criminals felt pretty damn good about themselves. And it was this feeling good about themselves in spite of the reality around them that gave them the sense of justification for hurting and disrespecting others.
For individuals to feel justified in doing horrible things to other people, they must feel an unwavering certainty in their own righteousness, in their own beliefs and deservedness. Racists do racist things because they’re certain about their genetic superiority. Religious fanatics blow themselves up and murder dozens of people because they’re certain of their place in heaven as martyrs. Men rape and abuse women out of their certainty that they’re entitled to women’s bodies.
Evil people never believe that they are evil; rather, they believe that everyone else is evil.
In controversial experiments, now simply known as the Milgram Experiments, named for the psychologist Stanley Milgram, researchers told “normal” people that they were to punish other volunteers for breaking various rules. And punish them they did, sometimes escalating the punishment to the point of physical abuse. Almost none of the punishers objected or asked for explanation. On the contrary, many of them seemed to relish the certainty of the moral righteousness bestowed upon them by the experiments.
The problem here is that not only is certainty unattainable, but the pursuit of certainty often breeds more (and worse) insecurity.
Many people have an unshakable certainty in their ability at their job or in the amount of salary they should be making. But that certainty makes them feel worse, not better. They see others getting promoted over them, and they feel slighted. They feel unappreciated and underacknowledged.
Even a behavior as simple as sneaking a peek at your boyfriend’s text messages or asking a friend what people are saying about you is driven by insecurity and that aching desire to be certain.
You can check your boyfriend’s text messages and find nothing, but that’s rarely the end of it; then you may start wondering if he has a second phone. You can feel slighted and stepped over at work to explain why you missed out on a promotion, but then that causes you to distrust your coworkers and second-guess everything they say to you (and how you think they feel about you), which in turn makes you even less likely to get promoted. You can keep pursuing that special someone you’re “supposed” to be with, but with each rebuffed advance and each lonely night, you only begin to question more and more what you’re doing wrong.
And it’s in these moments of insecurity, of deep despair, that we become susceptible to an insidious entitlement: believing that we deserve to cheat a little to get our way, that other people deserve to be punished, that we deserve to take what we want, and sometimes violently.
It’s the backwards law again: the more you try to be certain about something, the more uncertain and insecure you will feel.
But the converse is true as well: the more you embrace being uncertain and not knowing, the more comfortable you will feel in knowing what you don’t know.
Uncertainty removes our judgments of others; it preempts the unnecessary stereotyping and biases that we otherwise feel when we see somebody on TV, in the office, or on the street. Uncertainty also relieves us of our judgment of ourselves. We don’t know if we’re lovable or not; we don’t know how attractive we are; we don’t know how successful we could potentially become. The only way to achieve these things is to remain uncertain of them and be open to finding them out through experience.
Uncertainty is the root of all progress and all growth. As the old adage goes, the man who believes he knows everything learns nothing. We cannot learn anything without first not knowing something. The more we admit we do not know, the more opportunities we gain to learn.
Our values are imperfect and incomplete, and to assume that they are perfect and complete is to put us in a dangerously dogmatic mindset that breeds entitlement and avoids responsibility. The only way to solve our problems is to first admit that our actions and beliefs up to this point have been wrong and are not working.
This openness to being wrong must exist for any real change or growth to take place.
Before we can look at our values and prioritizations and change them into better, healthier ones, we must first become uncertain of our current values. We must intellectually strip them away, see their faults and biases, see how they don’t fit in with much of the rest of the world, to stare our own ignorance in the face and concede, because our own ignorance is greater than us all.