May 13, 2008

Doubt, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, is the “feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction” with the further implication that not enough information is available to make a decision. To me doubt is a constant companion to whom I pay as little attention as possible. In the area of religious beliefs, for example, doubt is a familiar companion of mine, especially when I entertain the more mystical occurrences in Jesus’ life, like the resurrection. It is okay with me that doubt is there along with the belief; I am able to entertain simultaneously the belief and the doubt about the belief. I like to distinguish this kind of doubt from DOUBT which ruled my life for many years undermining any attempts to be authentic or to step away from the established tradition. In capital letters DOUBT kept me tied up in inaction and uncertainty about everything and anything. I was tentative and uncertain, not wanting to make a mistake or have someone criticize me. This state of inaction was so unnatural and unlike me that I finally broke free in my forties and fifties and haven’t been so troubled since.

It’s not that doubt has become a friend of mine, but I find that not paying it any attention makes it recede, then it has little importance to me. I acknowledge that it is there, and that is all. What I believe, what I am proposing to do, the direction I want to move in—all these would be stopped by doubt if I paid attention to it. Life is just not worth living when doubt/DOUBT rules.

John Patrick Shanley, author of the play, “Doubt,” writes of another perspective about doubt in the preface, “Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to enter the Present.” He continues by asserting that conviction takes less energy and courage than doubt because “conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise.” Shanley suggests here that doubt is a positive, a recognition that things are changing and that doubt precedes the transition. It is the first signal of a change in the offing.

If beliefs and convictions are a resting place, an easy place where we experience certainty and that sense of righteousness that brooks no challenge and defends itself proudly, then doubt takes us into the uncertainty of change. I suspect that living in doubt all the time would be extremely unsettling, that we do need our certainties, our routines. Yet to live there all the time is to develop rigidity, an inflexibility that compares to death of the human spirit. Somehow doubt, as Shanley writes, invites us out of rigidity and complacency into that shadowy world where change happens constantly, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically. Think of the difference between last two years as the consequences of the housing bubble have slowly unfolded and the suddenness of the change in the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. In the end the consequences of the housing bubble and of the flooding of New Orleans both have had life-changing effects—the loss of precious things, housing, expectations, etc.

I don’t think doubt will ever be a friend. Do we welcome a disturbance into our lives or do we resist? But I don’t think it has to be the enemy either. It keeps us just short of complacent, on our toes moving forward instead of standing still, and warning us of changes ahead. If not a friend, it can be a steady companion on the way.

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