THIS I BELIEVE
I believe in doubt.
A faith in faithlessness? A curious idea. Certainty, confidence, conviction: these are the qualities we admire, not wobbly irresolution. Yes — but doubt is the way to get there.
To question, to think twice, is to open your mind and let new ideas in. I see this in the classes I teach: Good students read the material, memorize it, ace the test. They are scholars. But excellent students read and retain – and also look beyond. “Are these the ultimate facts?” they ask. “Are there no exceptions?” These students are truly learners, gifted with the faculty of doubt. They will come up with the new ideas, and debunk the old. Unfettered by smugness, their curiosity and imagination will take them over the false horizon of certainty.
Though often scorned as weakness, doubt is in fact a form of quiet courage. It takes guts to resist the pat explanation or the so-called conventional wisdom. Einstein dared to doubt Newtonian physics, and he changed the world more than mighty armies ever could.
Doubt is the antidote to the toxin of blind faith. The true believer cuts a powerful figure: clear-eyed, decisive, imbued with the strength of utter certitude. “There is no doubt,” our leaders assured us on the way into Iraq. Victory is “a slam-dunk.” The skeptics, meanwhile, were denounced as defeatists. Who dared suggest that these stalwarts might be wrong? Deplorably, far too few.
(Yes, I would add, the skeptics, too, can be wrong – but skeptics, by nature, don’t start wars.)
Doubt inspires individuality, rescuing us from the herd instinct. When the free-market bulls of Wall Street stampeded the economy over a cliff, only the mavericks survived. But the danger of running with the crowd is more than simply financial: it is a risk to one’s very self. To let others think for you is to surrender your own judgment, and with it your personal autonomy – the very qualities that make you you. This is a true calamity.
Yet, the price of doubt remains high. I recall a deep ambivalence I once felt during a production of Peter Pan. At a climactic moment, we were asked to applaud for Tinkerbell, to restore her faltering spirit. If we would only believe in her, we were told – believe with all our hearts – she would come back to life and save the day. I clapped, of course, as hard as I could . . . but believe? I just couldn’t.
Maybe, as I worried then, I was not as smart as the other kids. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. Worse still, maybe there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
Well, maybe. But now, looking back, I doubt it.