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On Certitude and Frogs

by Mary Ragan

One summer day, long ago and far away, I stood by the edge of a pond, looking at a frog floating motionless on top of the water. I pointed out the dead frog to my friend, who replied, “That frog’s not dead.” I said that it surely was dead and, in the face of her failure to see the truth, finally spoke with authority: “That’s the deadest frog I’ve ever seen.” At which point, of course, the frog leapt out of the water. I now have a circle of friends and family who will simply say to me: “That’s the deadest frog I’ve ever seen” when I speak with a degree of certainty about that which is not certain.

The certitude of my earlier years can still surface at times but mostly has given way to a deep appreciation of the provisional nature of what I know or think I know. I understand that certainty is a hedge against anxiety and anxiety is what fuels emotional distress. In the face of change or transition, anxiety spikes.

The kind of change that produces the most anxiety is change that “shakes the foundations.” It may be traumatic, as in the sudden death of a loved one resulting from violence, an accident, or undetected medical condition. These traumas result in feelings of fear and helplessness. Change may also be less dramatic but still devastating nonetheless, e.g., it may be the loss of a job (or inability to get one), producing financial distress as well as an assault on one’s self-esteem; it may be the end of a marriage or the beginning of dementia. It may be the recognition that some deep desires will never be realized. The feelings connected with these events often appear first in the body: muscular tightness, difficulty breathing, inability to relax, lack of interest in sex, evidence of a sleep disorder, and appetite changes. The body provides the first warning sign of emotional distress.

Foundational change can also be positive: the birth of a child; the public commitment of two people willing to cast their lot with one another in faith and hope; crossing boundaries of race, class, geography, and culture to address human need. It can be the replacement of one building in the service of another. It can be the arrival of a new leader. 

What is important to recognize about this deep change, whether positive or negative, is that the change is significant and irreversible. It does not simply mean doing more—or less—of what was already being done. It means doing something fundamentally different, something that requires new learning and a new story. A basic axiom of learning theory applies here: “Learning happens when events violate our expectations.”

My work as a clinical social worker is filled with examples of people who have either chosen or been subjected to profound change and have reconstituted themselves in new ways. They demonstrate that devastation need not be permanent and resilience is a human capacity that goes far beyond what we can imagine. They embody what it means to be able to tell a “new story,” one that acknowledges the past while, at the same time, refusing to allow that past to define them forever.

How does an individual, group, or institution arrive at such a positive outcome? Obviously, there are multiple pathways to wholeness and wisdom, to developing a new story that enriches an individual and builds the community. The Sufi tradition stipulates four basic rules of life that I think offer a valuable template for dealing with change:

SHOW UP: This requires a willingness to make a conscious choice to be present, stay in the moment, create value for yourself in the process, and not depend on another to do it for you. 

PAY ATTENTION: Track the feelings that are happening within you—excitement, resistance, confusion, anger, fear, hope—listen for what has heart and meaning for you and for others; listen for what the deep story is and where healing needs to occur.

TELL THE TRUTH WITHOUT BLAME OR JUDGMENT: Find your voice and add it to the collective wisdom; speak of your own experience; practice the discipline of naming your own feelings and your own thoughts.

DO NOT BE ATTACHED TO THE OUTCOME: Offer your gifts, talents, opinions, and ideas—and then let them go; be willing to be changed by the process 

Be willing to be changed by the process.

Be willing to give up certitude, and you will never be accused of a false sighting of the “deadest frog ever seen.”

Mary Ragan, Ph.D., is Area Director at the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute at Trinity. She teaches at Columbia School of Social Work and Hebrew Union College.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue Trinity News, which can be viewed here

Feature photo by e_monk via Flickr.

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