When Doubt is an Ally

“Doubt grows with knowledge.”  ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Today we hear many voices speak with the ring of dogmatic certainty, where the ugliest of ugly thoughts are hurled out to every time zone.  I find myself asking, how can so many be so sure of so much?

Socrates once observed, “I know that I don’t know.  But you don’t know what you don’t know and that’s why you think you know.”

For many of us the business of not knowing can be a real stumbling block and an endless source of pain.  We never were taught to live in a world of doubt.  We were taught answers to questions and to never question what we were taught.  As a child in the 1950’s doubt was a concept I didn’t understand.  In my world there were immutable truths to which we were all asked to conform:

  • We were a nation of believers.
  • We trusted our leaders. 
  • We believed what we read.

The coming of age moment for many in my generation occurred on January 20, 1961, the day John Kennedy was inaugurated.  Some of us heeded his call to venture forth into a “new frontier,” to become a generation of doers not takers, to forge a new world focused on the future, not the past.  The only problem was, to this new world many of us took our old selves.  We had never been schooled in the virtue of doubt so were left trading one set of certainties for another.

Then uncertainty interjected itself and all hell broke loose.  It was not as easy to change things as I had envisioned.  I arrived on the scene thinking I had answers, but over the next 20 years I came to discover through a thousand different experiences the world was not about to bend to my way of thinking.  The certainty I knew as a child turned out not to be real; I was reminded at every turn that the world was uncertain and no amount of striving would change that fact.  As my disillusionment grew my youthful exuberance morphed into discontent.  I finally threw in the towel and turned life into one long party.

By the time I reached my 35th birthday I was a lost soul.  I had long since given up trusting in anything; I cast aside believing in my nation, my church and my leaders.  Alcohol was the fuel I used to keep my doubt at a distance, my despair at bay, and my unhappiness numbed.

My need to live with immutable truths set me up like Humpty Dumpty on a very precarious wall, and like Humpty I fell, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would not put Patrick Moriarty together again.

I fell off the wall and into sobriety.  I broke into a thousand pieces and came to discover in my shattered state that life was livable.  I discovered legions of shattered men and women living contented lives, happy, joyous and free.  And I came to learn that doubt is not my enemy but my ally.

Socrates observed 2,500 hundred years ago it was the folly of humans to live with misplaced certainty.  He believed we must always move toward our doubts not away from them.

After her death it was learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrestled with deep misgivings and doubts.  Her journals portray a woman of profound complexity struggling with a crisis of faith that was real and unrelenting and yet in a strange kind of way exhilarating.  In 1953 she wrote, “Please pray especially for me that I might not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself – for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less since I started the ‘work.’”  Yet precisely in her darkness she went on to live an illuminating life of service giving comfort to the dying.

“Doubt is not the opposite of faith but an element of faith.” ~ Paul Tillich

Just a Thought…


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