So much of life is trial-and-error, no? We all make guesses every day. Our lives are shaped by the never-ending series of guesses, evaluation of results, and new guesses. From the time a child is old enough to explore the world, she engages and interacts and measures the feedback. Of course, she doesn’t know she’s doing that. In her mind, she’s just putting her hand in the VCR slot. (I know, I just dated myself). But indulging the autonomous, natural curiosity of childhood gives a different kind of satisfaction, with a different kind of internal feedback, than fulfilling external expectations imposed by others.
The point is, we all make guesses about the world. We start with the idea that the world is our playpen. There is nothing in it to harm us. But a child left with a key will invariably find an electric outlet with a key-sized slot. Hmmm…this looks like it will fit. The child inserts the key and the next thing she knows she’s across the kitchen floor on her back, her mom frantically yelling and gesturing.
Perhaps that is an extreme example, but it serves as a template.
Life involves exploration and experimentation; and all good experiments start with a hypothesis, which is just a fancy way to say, ”a guess”. So guesses are made about things like how fast we can pedal our bike down the gravel driveway. Or, what will happen if I send that girl a ”do you like me, (yes or no?) note in class? And if you’re a bold guesser, you’ll want to see what will happen if you lean in close enough; will she give you a goodnight kiss? The guesses that turn out with good results both increase confidence and reinforce willingness to keep guessing. Bad results diminish confidence, reduce curiosity, and can lead to the basic anxiety that most people feel when facing the unknown.
For confident guessers, the unknown is exciting, even thrilling. Those once-bitten are not only twice shy, they lose confidence in their ability to guess well. These become much more willing to be told what to do, what they should want, and how they should live. To avoid a bad outcome from what they feel is a bad guess, they’re willing to let others do their guessing. They become ”second-guessers” of their own decisions. As you can see, a second guesser is actually someone afraid to be a ”first guesser”.
The thing is, even for the less confident, the guessing isn’t over. As far as I can tell, it never stops. There is a daily feedback loop of trial-and-error data to process. Sometimes the results are immediate, sometimes delayed. The ones who do what they are told are still guessing that the someone else can choose better for their lives than they can. They are guessing that they will make a mess of things if they reclaim the basic autonomy to make guesses for themselves. So, they usually defer.
There’s no good manual or definitive guide for these things. There are no guarantees. All guesses are not good ones. But this is the life we’re stuck with. And that means everyone gets to do their own trial-and-error explorations to determine which actions and decisions produce results they like best. Our lives are shaped by this never-ending series of guesses, evaluation of results, and new guesses.
It would seem that on paper, there are as many different ways to live as there are people. How then do we end up in a world in which we’re competing with one another trying to attain the same things? How do we become so easily manipulated to look and act so much alike? Is it because people too often become afraid of their guessing ability when things don’t turn out the way they expect? Something inside breaks.
When people talk about a broken spirit, maybe this is what they mean. A person with a broken spirit is just someone not confident enough to make a guess that might result in failure. So they’re easy prey for someone else to use them in making their own guesses. And isn’t that the worst kind of failure there is, especially since guessing about the best way to live for oneself is the nature of what it means to learn how to live well?