This I Believe

Shawn - Burlington, Vermont
Entered on August 28, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: question

I have been contemplating this essay, in one form or another, for years. My inability to articulate what I want to say seems to run contrary to the nature of this program. But, in this case it fits, because I believe in the power of doubt. I not only believe in accepting doubt, I believe in actively cultivating it.

In the world I perceive, humans strive to live precisely; or, at least we value order over randomness, purpose over aimlessness, action over inaction, certainty over doubt. It’s understandable to admire those people who appear to act so decisively on their beliefs, thoughts, theories, and desires. The capacity for clarity and decisiveness has served humankind well. However, what I see as the cultural elevation of decisiveness has needlessly come with a corresponding devaluation of doubt. Our lexicon supports this conclusion. Synonyms for doubt: equivocate, wishy-washy, uncertain, fickle, indecision, et cetera, are all pejorative terms, regardless of context. Yet, I believe there are times when doubt can be a healthy and beneficial aspect of our consciousness.

I remember an email that was circulated years ago which contained a picture and a question. The picture was of a moose dangling from a power line. The question was the obvious: how did this strange situation come to pass? Yet I became fixated on a different question, namely, what would be going through the mind of a human being who similarly experienced something that was outside of their ability to comprehend—a mystery that, like the moose and his power line, was infinitely beyond human understanding? For me, the answer is simple. I believe that if a person was to experience something fundamentally incomprehensible, they would eventually settle on a specific explanation for the event: aliens, or the CIA, or maybe a higher power, or a more scientific explanation like an electrical disturbance. The explanations will vary, but I’m fairly certain there will be one. This is an understandable reaction. It is very difficult to wrap a searching, thinking mind around the words “I don’t know” and then live in that reality. But does a definitive fabrication serve us better than a puzzling reality?

Although it may be difficult, I believe that recognizing and admitting what I don’t know, and acting with that doubt in mind, is a powerfully positive asset. I believe that being doubtful, when justified, leads to a deeper understanding of my condition, better decisions, and a more positive impact on, and interaction with the world around me. Doubt will not lead to quicker answers, but it will lead to better answers. It will not stop me from taking action, even when there are risks. However, it will help me to make better decisions, especially when the potentially harmful results could affect other people.

I believe that, in a shrinking world, where I seem to have a greater and greater ability to impact more and more people with smaller and more benign actions, my capacity to recognize doubt, contemplate it, and take responsibility for how it might play out is a fundamentally positive part of my being. Of that I am sure.