Doubt

November 20, 2002

Doubt is something that we all live with. For some of us, doubt can play an important part of our awareness, while for others, it can be something that lurks around the edges of our lives, perhaps something that we aware of but choose to ignore, or at least try to pretend its not there. In some respect, doubt is the proverbial two edged sword: it can be helpful in cutting away illusions and delusions, but in turn, it can also cleave into our psyche, inflating and pronouncing already manifest insecurities and fears.

On the healthy side of doubt, we can use skepticism as a tool. There has been more than one philosopher, scientist, or journalist”?to name a few types of professions”?that have employed doubt as a means to uncover, recover, or otherwise discover something true. A philosopher might use her doubt to see through the view of the text that she is reading, while the scientist might be skeptical of certain findings, which, in turn, drives his research into new areas of investigation and discovery. The journalist might have a sense of skepticism regarding a story that is unfolding. She might feel that there is something not being told or not being said, covered up, or otherwise neglected. Such a sense could contribute to her pursuing alternate angles, different sources, and may end up recovering or creating a better account of an event, or perhaps even getting to the truth where before existed only deceptions.

From the few, and by no means exhaustive, examples above we see how doubt can be a positive and generative force in our lives. A healthy dose of skepticism can assist us by allowing us to see through deception or error. With doubt as a motivational factor we may gain courage to try to pursue alternate avenues of thought and belief. If nothing else, this kind of doubt can help us recognize when we are being fed a line”?whether by the media, a politician, an institution, or simply the creepy person hitting on us in a night club”?and it can thus empower us to reel in that line on our own terms, to wiggle off the hook and instead cast our own net or simply swim away. Moreover, a healthy and willful skepticism can even assist us in questioning our own beliefs, actions, and decisions. In short, doubt is a tool that enables us to get beyond pitfalls, traps, and snares, whether they where set by ourselves for ourselves, or set by others for us. However, there is also a dark complement to doubt, and unhealthy skepticism which can lead to self-depreciation, self-denial, misanthropy, pessimism, or outright nihilism.

A deep and dark doubt can be overpowering. It can overtake us in its drive of incessant questioning of what is real, what is true. We might direct such doubt at the world around us with the result being that we don’t trust much of anything within the social context we find ourselves embedded in. This could lead us to consider that things are really not as bad as they seem, but much worse. We might become angry or simply depressed and end up feeling that there is not much point to life in its various manifestations. In short, we might, when possessed by this extreme and radical skepticism, wind up feeling that there is simply no meaning to life, and thus, no value to living. Such doubt might make us question the authenticity of any genuine relationships in our lives, wondering, for example, if there was a double meaning in what a friend said to us, or if some unrelated circumstance was really pointing to our own shortcomings. In other words, the negative and unhealthy side of doubt can cause us to not only feel that the world around us is meaningless and worthless, but also, that we ourselves are meaningless and worthless.

And aren’t these things hard to define sometimes: value, worth, meaning? What do we place value in, how do we define our worth, where does meaning exist for us? Do these things stem from mere material resources, or are they generated in a more spiritual manner? Is it based on how are family or our friends see us, or how much money we make or what kinds of things we own? It is hard to pin down exactly, and it even seems to shift and change from day to day. It is this shifting and instability which reflects the double nature of doubt. We are free to decide what is seen as valuable to us, what we will take as meaningful and worthwhile; yet, this same freedom is what can cast the longest shadows and create the most acute sense of the lack of these things in our lives.

Recently I watched The Last Temptation of Christ again. I hadn’t seen it for a few years, but I couldn’t help but notice that self-doubt seems to be an important motif in this movie. Jesus repeatedly wrestles with doubt in his worth, doubt in his position, doubt in his path. The character is confronted with doubt to such a degree that he sobs and pleads with God because he knows the course that his life must take, but yet, he finds himself afraid to take it. This extreme doubt is what supplies Satan with the opportunity to provide Jesus’ last temptation, and Jesus, broken and afraid, jumps at the chance to flee his destiny. Of course, in the end, Jesus conquers his doubt, and gains the courage to face the task that he must fulfill.

Now, most of us don’t have to worry about being crucified as a messiah, but I think there is something in this for us. We can, in our throes of doubt, feel as if we are being crucified on the wheel of life”?as if we are being persecuted, slandered, devalued, alienated, ostracized, and a whole host of not very pleasant things to have to be feeling. I wonder if we might occasionally enjoy it in a masochistic sense. We humans sometimes seem all too bent on promoting misery in the world, and it often doesn’t seem to matter if we make others miserable or only ourselves: as long as someone is miserable, then we are happy.

A strange conundrum to be sure!

Anyway, I suppose that what I might be getting at is that doubt seems to be something that is faced by even the best of humans, and maybe what is important is not to succumb fully and completely to doubt, but perhaps, to let it inspire and drive us. That is to say, maybe, like in The Last Temptation, our doubt can serve as a vehicle for us to find courage, to find that inner strength that allows us to stand back up again, to raise our voice and say the things that might need to be said, might need to be heard.

Maybe sometimes we need only to doubt the doubt that doubts.


b.e. hydomako is a grouchy old crank trapped in the body of a wet behind the ears goldfish in a tank that is full of too many piranhas (which is, well, any number of them really). The tank is also quite dirty, and getting more so everyday, but no one seems willing or able to clean the tank, or at least clean it in a way that is really effective. He would like to understand more about the relations that make up the existence of himself, the other fish, the tank, and what is beyond, but knows that this is a most difficult task”?he is, after all, only a goldfish!

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