Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The certainty of misery is preferable to the misery of uncertainty

Today I have been looking for the provenance of a quote. It is supposedly by Virginia Satir, a psychotherapist from Menlo Park in California, who founded the Avanta movement. It reads "The certainty of misery is preferable to the misery of uncertainty".

I read this quote in an article about David Bowie in Forbes magazine today. The writer, Justin Wasserman, in his article "Bowie Leadership: Turn And Face The Strange", talked about how David Bowie created his own unique niche in music and fashion by somehow remaining unclassifiable and timeless in genre, style and appeal. He said "The late psychotherapist Virginia Satir has been quoted as saying that 'most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.' Let that notion sink in for a moment. The majority of humanity would prefer to be miserable than to step into an uncertain window in the future – a future that could be wretched or, quite the contrary, infinitely superior to the present" (16 February 2016, Wasserman).

I was intrigued by the quote, mainly because I wondered if second 'misery' was a typo. To me, this quote felt like it should have read "most people prefer the certainty of misery to the mystery of uncertainty". While I realise that the certainty and uncertainty form a type of couplet, the mystery of uncertainty felt more 'right' to my ear.

So I went hunting to find the source of the quote. 

After a quick trawl online, I found my earliest item: a 2003 Google Answers reply, but that provided no source document references. Wikiquote was also silent on this quote.

The US Open Library service is usually one of my first ports of call for source documents, so I went there. I trawled the OL index, and borrowed those Virginia Satir books which were available:"Making Contact", "Self-esteem", "Helping Families to Change" and "Peoplemaking". Unfortunately, none of these books contained the quote I was looking for.

There are another couple of checked out books ("The new peoplemaking", and "Conjoint family therapy") which I need to look at yet. I have added myself to the waiting list for those. However, I am not hopeful of finding the quote.

Which brought me to wondering why I was not hopeful. When searching for 'who said what', after a while, I think we get a feel for whether stated author is the actual author. I wonder if it is the same 'ring of truthfulness' - or 'jar of falseness' - that investigators and police feel when they are trying to solve something. 

I am not sure where this feeling comes from, but I think it sometimes stems from a sense that the answer is a little too pat, or that what we are seeking does not match the pattern of the author's previous writing.

After pondering this, I reflected on why I need to find the provenance of quotes. I wonder if, after our curiosity is initially sparked, it is because as we are on the trail we sense a lack of congruence, which then drives - spurs - us to find the REAL answer.

So I have turned to the Quote Investigator - Garson O'Toole - and asked him on his Facebook page if he can shed any light on whether or not Virginia Satir was the author of the quote... and from there, whether misery should be mystery:

Dear Quote Investigator, I was just reading a Forbes article at which quoted psychotherapist Virginia Satir saying “most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty”, but not giving a reference for this. Do you happen to know the source document for the quote? And, if you do, is the repetition of misery correct, or is the second instance supposed to be 'mystery'...?
I will report back when Garson comes back to me.




  1. You should take part in a contest for one of the best sites on the internet.
    I will recommend this site!

    1. Thanks Anonymous, however, I don't run competitions. I hope you still enjoy the posts despite that.

  2. Hi Sam, I am on this blog because I am using this quote in a paper I am working on. I came upon this quote back in 1982 in a mental health class. It was written into an allegory of the Wizard of Oz...revisited. In it Dorothy is miserable on the farm and desires to leave and go to the other side of the rainbow...And as we know, once there with all its unfamiliarity she is desperate to get back to Kansas...where she is safe. And so the reading ended with the quote: 'We prefer the security of our misery to the misery of uncertainty'. I'm not certain of the author and it could have been Virgina Satir

    1. Interesting, John! Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. I have heard that this has been attributed to Virginia Satir, but haven't found it in any of her books.

      Apologies from me: my posts were set to not publish, so I found today I had QUITE a backlog of unacknowledged comments :-(


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