Fear of the Unknown and the Uncontrollable

Elissa Klein
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 02/21/2016



"I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few."

Brene Brown-American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work


“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next.

Delicious Ambiguity.”

Gilda Radner, American comedienne and actress who died at the age of 42 of ovarian cancer


“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don't deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”

Pema Chödrön tibetan buddhist nun


Desiderata- max ehrmann, American writer, poet, and attorney from Terre Haute, Indiana

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.

But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;

and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.

Especially, do not feign affection.

Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.

Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;

you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,

and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.


         Today I’m going to talk about the fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable and I will be posing a few challenges for you throughout this sermon. To start off, I want to give a few examples that I will be referring to later. So when we think about the unknown and the uncontrollable, some things that come to mind include: failure, other people’s reactions, uncertainty, and the meaning of life.

It is innate and natural to be afraid of certain things. Natural selection favors those who run away from situations that they cannot control or do not fully understand. The cave man that decided not to jump into the rushing river probably survived to reproduce over the one that did jump. The cave man that ventured into the mysterious cave and stumbled upon a hibernating bear may not have faired as well as the one that stayed home. And sometimes you should heed those fears to stay out of danger, but in our complex, changing world, too often we allow ourselves and our potential to be swallowed up by the fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable.

         One outstanding example is the fear of one’s own performance. We sometimes refuse to take chances because we don’t think we can accomplish a goal. Even I was a bit fearful to give this sermon because I didn’t know how I would do. This fear of failure is all too prevalent in today’s high-pressure society, and it can be blamed for so much stunted potential. Had I allowed my apprehension to dissuade me from giving this sermon, I would not have been able to share this message with you and I would have given up a great experience. This fear can be applied to almost any situation, in the workplace, in relationships, on a sports team, in music, etc. Not knowing how we will perform is largely to blame for so much lost opportunity. I challenge you to let go of the doubt that we all have in ourselves and give yourself permission to take a calculated risk and push yourself further than your self-imposed limits to do whatever it is that you are holding yourself back from.

         Sometimes we fear things because we don't’ know how we will do, we fear other situations because we cannot control how other people will react. This is truly uncontrollable because we don’t have the same power over other people's emotions and actions as we do over our own. Two examples of this are when people display anger as a result of something we said and when people’s feelings are hurt because of something we said. Let’s say I wrecked my dad’s car :). I would be terrified to tell him because I know that he would be furious and I would have little control over his reaction. The only influence I have is the way that I present the bad news. But even so he will be justifiably angry. While I may not be able to make him less angry, I do have control over how I deal with his reaction. I can let it make me upset and sad or I can accept the legitimacy of his reaction and be okay with the misfortune of the situation. I challenge you to be bold enough to face other people’s warranted anger and learn to process their reaction rather than strive for the unattainable outcome of no repercussions at all. I say this with the caveat that I am not referring to the situation of anger in domestic abuse.

         Not only do we struggle the with the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable, but in other situations we have to deal with the discomfort of the unknown in the form of uncertainty. In instances where no final outcome has been reached, we often find ourselves sick with anticipation of what the result may be. For example, right now I am waiting for an admission decision from six colleges :). Being in this sort of limbo has been uncomfortable and I have found it hard to focus on anything else. This kind of uncertainty is magnified in the extreme and tragic incidents when children are kidnapped for years and the parents are left wondering if they are alive or dead. Parents in this awful predicament often say that what they desire most is closure. Being left in this state of uncertainty is mentally paralyzing and people in these circumstances cannot move on until an outcome has been reached. While fortunately most of us will never experience this kind of trauma, we all have the deal with uncertainty in less severe situations. Instead of  focusing on the fact that you have not reached outcome A or B, acknowledge and feel comfortable being in situation C, which is a state of uncertainty. Stressing over what the answer will be doesn’t make the answer come sooner, it only makes your life harder. I challenge you to stop agonizing over the lack of certitude, and instead strive to feel comfortable in a state of uncertainty.

    Some of the most daunting unknowns and uncontrollables are found in spirituality and the big question of life. Why are we here? What happens when we die? The many religions of the world are different attempts to answer those questions and we cannot prove any of them to be certainly true. We can take evidence to support each one and come up with a reason why each might be correct, but we will never discern just one set of beliefs as the absolute, infallible truth. This uncertainty may stem from the limitations of our perception. We have ears and eyes and mouths that give us information about our world, but they also leave things out. Just like we don’t have the sonar capabilities that bats have, we may not have the capability to absolutely figure out the objective truth of the universe, if one even exists. We each interpret the world and everything about it in an entirely different way from every other person in this room and that is scary, and that is uncontrollable, and that is absolutely probable.

         Since every individual's’ view of the world is different and we don’t have any conclusive way to establish one common, true set of beliefs, it is unreasonable to expect that your spirituality will ever be proven or be the same as anybody else’s. But rather than fearing this lack of a cohesive understanding, embrace it. Let go of the idea that objective certainty is an achievable goal and embrace the ambiguity of the world. Accept, even cherish, the fact that all we can do is trust our own perception of truth and decide what we individually believe in.  By nature, we inherently find it scary not to know what is to come and not to be able to control a large amount of our lives. But what if instead we consciously took the time to see the impossibility of absolute certitude as an opportunity for progress in our personal spiritual quest? By ceasing our desperate search for certainty, we might remove a large obstacle in our path and allow ourselves to explore new metaphysical ideas.

Subjectivity, a personal assessment of truth based on one’s perception is just about as close to universal, absolute truth as we can get in this world. Objectively, not science, nor christianity, nor buddhism, nor zoroastrianism, nor atheism can be proven correct. The “search for truth and meaning” is entirely dependent on you and while it may be discomforting to think that one universal solution to all of our unknowns is impossible, take comfort and have confidence in your own ability to discern life in the only way you know how, as an individual.

         So this morning I have challenged you to do three things. The first is to let go of the doubt that we all have in ourselves and give yourself permission to take a calculated risk and push yourself further than your self-imposed limits. The second is to be bold enough to face negative reactions and learn to process them rather than strive for the unattainable outcome of no repercussions. And the third is to stop agonizing over the lack of certitude in everyday affairs, and instead strive to feel comfortable in a state of uncertainty. I leave you with one last challenge, which is to accept the lack of certitude in the world of spirituality and trust yourself to decide how you interpret the universe and our place in it.