How Simplification Has Made Us Intolerant to Ambiguity

am·bi·gu·i·ty (_m’b_-gy__’_-t_), n. pl. am·bi·gu·i·ties

1. Doubtfulness or uncertainty as regards interpretation.

2. Something of doubtful meaning. (The American Heritage®, Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. ©2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.)

The cultural tide toward simplification to relieve our power-strip lifestyles has missed its mark, and we’ve become stranded on the shores of oversimplification. Complex concepts are regularly reduced to sound bites. Quotations are easier to digest than essays. The candidate is either perfect or fatally flawed. Book titles have to say it all. And any big new idea needs to be completely explainable in a 12-minute Oprah segment, being sure to leave enough time for our girl to express her thoughts!

And check me out – I’m writing an article.

Unfortunately, this tidal wave of simplification has left us somewhat intolerant of ambiguity, the everyday, real-life state of being unclear, open to interpretation, or lacking a right answer. As in, it doesn’t exist. At all. There is no right answer. More and more, this is unacceptable to people, and it’s taking a toll on our individual psyches.

A Sampling of the Cost of Ambiguity Intolerance

1. Decreased Psychological and Emotional Resilience. No matter how clever you are at making up stories to explain why things happen, sooner or later something will happen to you that you can’t explain away. A death, a disaster, a young person’s disappointing choice, a lover’s sudden exit… life does baffle us. It’s part of our human inheritance. Not being able to accept the unexplainable cripples our ability to heal and recover.

2. Decreased Interpersonal Tolerance. The easiest escape from ambiguity is to make someone or something wrong, and when there’s a someone available to take the heat, he or she will usually have a different set of values than we do. That quickly boils down to someone with a different birth culture, religion, personal style, skin color, gender, sexual orientation… you know the list. Our inner prejudices (another human inheritance) come to life.

3. Increased Anxiety. For those of us who are fond of order and knowing what’s right and what’s wrong, ambiguous situations provoke stress. Maybe we thought the press was impartial, then learn they aren’t. Maybe we thought the army had a clear mission, then learn they don’t. Maybe our hero is revealed to have weaknesses. We trusted something and our trust is violated. We feel thrown off balance, out of our element, suddenly unsure of… everything. With the propensity of ambiguousness in real life, we can find ourselves living with a constant level of nail-biting, overeating, nicotine-craving anxiety.

4. Risk Aversion and Abdicated Responsibility. Avoiding situations that lack simplicity, understandability and a sure outcome means that golden opportunities in real estate or other investments are surely missed. Even more dangerous is turning one’s financial responsibilities over to an “expert” to manage; it takes rigorous self-honesty to discern whether it’s a genuine and affordable self-supportive action versus an irresponsible avoidance. Stewarding our own resources and choosing our own risks are privileges and part of our emotional maturing process.

5. Decreased Creativity. A primary fuel for the creative spark is chaos – a dance of unanswered questions, unsolved mysteries, convoluted problems requiring out-of-the-box thinking, innovative approaches and fresh, unprecedented perspectives. Creativity is born of the ambiguous, and (most personally tragic of all these costs) those who can’t tolerate the ambiguous lose a great deal of their creativity.

Five Keys to Making Friends with Ambiguity

1. Give Up Right & Wrong. Hamlet said it best: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Which is a fancy way of saying we make this stuff up. Our ideas about right & wrong are just that – ideas. Ideas that spring from inside us, not out in the world. There is no monolithic yardstick in a field near Stonehenge where things can be measured objectively. The good news is that we don’t need one. Whether or not something is right or wrong for the world is an irrelevant and unanswerable question (ironic, no?); whether it’s right for each of us as individuals – that’s relevant. And you are the authority on what is right for you. Cancel your subscription to the outer yardstick digest, and start letting others decide what’s right for them.

2. Be Compassionate All Around. Ambiguity is stressful, this is a fact. How we relate to it makes the difference between tolerance and intolerance. Having compassion for ourselves is a key step. Breathe in and out, acknowledging inwardly that it’s hard to just be with the uncertainty and not take a position. Pat yourself on the back when you manage to resist that urge to contract into intolerance. And when you see others losing that struggle, remember that it’s not easy, that it’s actually painful sometimes, and give them a break. Maybe they’ll get it next time.

3. Practice Not Knowing. The absence of ambiguity – the clarity, absoluteness, certainty that we enjoy so often – is almost always an illusion. We don’t actually know most of what we think we know, and thinking it is very limiting. It limits our creativity and our ability to see the untold possibilities of any given situation. Let go of the illusion of knowing. Spend a day coming up with as many unconsidered alternatives as possible, and make sure some of them are outlandish. Creativity is a very satisfying replacement for false knowledge, and it keeps our integrity intact.

4. Trust Yourself. When you feel the stress of ambiguity, it’s often accompanied by a fear that something frightening will happen. A boogeyman will attack in the fog. Here’s some news: the boogeyman is not what you’re afraid of. What you are truly afraid of is the lashing you’ll take from your inner critics for not anticipating the boogeyman. Fire them. You don’t have to be prepared for every eventuality. You have resourcefulness, intelligence, creativity, courage, compassion and resilience, and they will have your back when the unanticipated appears. Trust yourself. You can handle the boogeyman.

5. Laugh. Humor is the great spell breaker, and our distress over ambiguity is a big, fat spell. With the illusion of knowing gone, with the defeat of tyrants right & wrong (hey, that rhymes), the truth is revealed. Ambiguity is our constant companion, and it’s not a monster to be destroyed with sound bites. Put the torches away. Life wants to be complex sometimes, and isn’t that OK? Can’t we let the lawyers play too? Turn Oprah off and buy the boogeyman a coffee. In fact, vote for the boogeyman. Someone has to do that job, and it may as well be someone with some complexity.

Examples of Ambiguity

Below are three ever-present examples of ambiguity in everyday life. Many people experience extreme discomfort in any situation where these issues are discussed or even mentioned. Most of us feel this to varying degrees. For some, the discomfort is so high that they cannot tolerate it and will develop coping mechanisms, reacting to the ambiguity in somewhat predictable ways.

I want to emphasize that their intolerance is for the discomfort, not for the people involved, although in some reactions it may seem that way.

Two common types of intolerant reactions are:

o Rigidity, a “clamping down” in which the person believes their preferred solution to be absolutely right and all other possibilities to be wrong. These reactions are often marked by righteousness.

o Abdication, a refusal to form a personal opinion in an effort to avoid involvement in the ambiguity altogether. Some who are overly involved in New Age spiritual paradigms also abdicate to avoid ambiguity, explaining things away as God’s will. These reactions are often marked by apathy.

Example 1: Politics

Most political issues lack a clear solution that works for everyone every time. One’s personal and moral values, as well as one’s position in society (including age, gender, socioeconomic status, occupation, marital and parental status), will heavily influence how they view the issues. Here are a few specific examples:

o Immigration. Should the nation’s borders be sealed, or should we try to maintain this country as a land of asylum and opportunity? What information, such as wars, genocides or human rights violations in other countries should factor in at any given time?

o Abortion. Should people have the choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy? What factors should be considered? Why should such factors make a difference?

o Suicide and Euthanasia. Should people have the choice of whether or not to continue their own lives? What factors should be considered? Why should such factors make a difference?

Rigid Reaction: The right answer is A, here’s the evidence and that’s the way it is. Anyone who disagrees is just wrong. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.

Abdicating Reaction: I can see how some think A is best and how others think B is best. Maybe they’re all right, I don’t know. I don’t really have an opinion.

Tolerant Response: I think A is the best solution, though I admit it isn’t ideal. It won’t be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, it’s interesting to hear other points-of-view and to share mine (if people are open to hearing it).

Example 2: Religion

Among religions (and among sects or even individual churches of the same religions), beliefs, sacred texts, practices, and prayer vary widely. Groups have widely different takes on marriage, money, sex, drugs/alcohol, even dancing. People with low ambiguity tolerance can feel threatened by a lack of external validation for their religious orientation. Authentic faith, born of a strong and complex personal relationship with the divine (whatever that is conceived to be), is a powerful foundation for building one’s ambiguity tolerance.

Rigid Reaction: Ours is the only true religion/spiritual practice. Many others think their religion is the one, and that’s sad because it’s not the case. We do what we can to help them, but some people just aren’t open to new and better ideas.

Abdicating Reaction: Religion is just a way to fulfill a need for belonging. I’ve tried lots of them and they’re really all the same. It doesn’t matter which one you’re in. I mean, who cares?

Tolerant Response: I’m a proud member of my religion/spiritual practice. It feels nourishing and uplifting to me, but I know it doesn’t feel that way to everyone.

Example 3. Personal Choice

Making choices is one of our most fundamental rights as empowered, individual, learning beings. We can all remember as teens hearing adults advise us against some potentially poor choice, but we knew instinctively that we needed to choose it and live out the consequences ourselves. This still applies. The people around us make choices all the time that seem poor to us, and vice versa. Here are just a few examples:

o A high school senior is offered a prestigious but unpaid internship for the summer in New York, but he chooses to work for minimum wage with his friends at an auto body shop.

o A woman decides to stay with the boyfriend who crashed her car and refuses to admit he was buzzed or to pay for the damage.

o A 56-year-old man marries a 25-year-old woman.

Rigid Reaction: What is he thinking? I told him not to do it. It will give me no pleasure to say “I told you so,” but I will because I did! What an idiot.

Abdicating Reaction: People have their own reasons for doing things. It isn’t my place to judge or to say anything. If something bad happens, I’ll do my best to be supportive but y’know, I’m so busy.

Tolerant Response: I wish he wouldn’t do this. I told him my opinion, but it is his choice and I let him know I’ll support him whatever he decides. We’ll see what happens and then go from there. If he needs help, I’ll probably help him.

Films that Are Rich with Ambiguity

For this list, I’m using the word ambiguity to specifically refer to the absence of a clear, “right” answer or resolution. The following films contain characters and/or situations in which there is irresolvable conflict. Watching such films is an opportunity to practice tolerance by witnessing the conflict, resisting the urge to simplify the issue, and forming a personal opinion without deciding it’s therefore resolved.

25th Hour (2002)
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Blade Runner (1982)
Capote (2005)
Crash (2005)
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
I Am Sam (2001)
Lone Star (1996)
Magnolia (1999)
Sideways (2004)
Solaris (2002)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
The Village (2004)
Traffic (2000)
Unforgiven (1992).