The Importance of Nurturing Doubt in an Age of Righteousness
Fiction’s gift to us is the ability to live in the “land of ambiguity.”
I often remark that we’re living in “the Age of Certainty,” although perhaps the better moniker is “the Age of Righteousness.” The two go hand in hand.
People shout their truths on social media with such shrillness that life can feel like an ongoing screed. Our streams are rife with taunts and ripostes, demands and disses, rebukes and rebuttals. Rarely does anyone “lower” themselves to ask a question, listen to a response, allow another to explain. And then it’s even rarer to shift one’s own position. Being right is more important than creating an environment for an exchange of thoughts. (It’s good to remember that scolding isn’t an effective rhetorical tool.)
As I read people’s comments online, it’s as if I’m navigating a land of walls and fortresses, with arrows darting from towers on different sides. It’s difficult to speak unless you want to draw your own bow, so, unfortunately, many stay silent.
It’s easy to blame social media for such a state, but I think there’s something going in the world that’s beyond social media — or that social media only reveals: a mindset of righteousness that has infected the culture at large, no matter your political or religious persuasion. We feel threatened, so we’ve chosen sides. The Civil War has begun. We might not carry rifles (yet), but the bullets of Gettysburg have taken the form of tweets, memes, and scowling emojis.
The Salve of Doubt
The answer? I think we need to immerse ourselves in the healing powers of doubt. The kind of doubt that poses questions, sparks curiosity, invites scrutiny. The kind of doubt that entreats us to pause and listen, to surrender our egos, soften our stances, admit fallibility and weakness.
Certainty leads to arguments and wars. Doubt leads to exploration and dialogue. Certainty tends to close us. Doubt by definition opens us.
To say, “I’m not sure,” to hesitate, is to be weak in our culture.
America, however, in our bigness, our brashness, has never had much fondness for doubt. People who operate with doubt are often criticized as being indecisive — and indecision isn’t an admirable trait. Just consider the way leadership styles are esteemed. George W. Bush and Donald Trump both brandish their decisiveness as a badge of macho honor (Bush even proudly gave himself the nickname, “The Decider”), and people often view them as strong as a result. Barack Obama, however, was frequently pilloried for vacillating between options as he pondered decisions. To say, “I’m not sure,” to hesitate, is to be weak in our culture. Swift, sure, and strong decisions mark a good leader.
Bush and Trump each also prefer to make decisions from their guts, seemingly proud that their certainty doesn’t get muddled in the complications of the cognitive realms. On the other hand, Obama’s “wavering” was often due to the fact that he liked to probe his advisors’ thoughts, look at data, reflect on history — a process that took time because it didn’t come from the gut, but from consultation and consensus building (and, yes, the higher cognitive realms).
We’re a society that prefers “full speed ahead” over “I’ll mull it over.” In some ways, we’re still a nation of Wild West gunslingers. If you’re not fast on the draw, you’re dead. Americans cherish certainty, so we’ve defined good decision-making around quickness and surety, even if such a style does lead to long wars we should have never gotten involved in.
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts,” said Bertrand Russell.
Our sound-bite world encourages us to live in the tiny boxes of our certainty.
It’s easy to make quick decisions when you’re an ideologue, a fanatic, or an authoritarian because you’re guided by righteousness. You don’t have or seek any questions. The wiser people, the doubters, speak with qualifications, with references, with a point-counterpoint style that doesn’t lend itself to pithy marketing phrases or the witty one-upmanship that is privileged in so much of our contemporary discourse.
The language of doubt also doesn’t translate effectively onto social media, for social media allows for little nuance. The text fields are just too small to afford a contour, a counterpoint, a tangent — too small to invite in the language of questions, of uncertainty. Our sound-bite world encourages us to live in the tiny boxes of our certainty. We follow our impulses, our gut instincts, like animals.
It takes courage and patience to operate with doubt because you’re essentially without arms, or you’re carrying a very different kind of arms at the very least.
Doubt and Creativity: the Benefits of Being Willing to Surrender
To nurture a mindset of doubt is to nurture a mindset of creativity — to love testing ideas, to revel in mystery and ambiguity, to seek answers in the shadows, to take comfort in the cloudy regions of thought. A mindset of doubt leads us beyond defensive postures because when evidence disproves or weakens our positions, we welcome that evidence and change our positions as a result. Doubt paves the roads of our search. It’s a “willingness to surrender,” as Walt Whitman calls it, which allows our thoughts, our dialogue, to move and shift.
“I like the scientific spirit — the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine — it always keeps the way beyond open — always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake — after a wrong guess,” said Walt Whitman in his Camden Conversations.
The hero is the one who can live and even thrive in a teetering world
Doubt — and the questions it opens — is what has always drawn me to fiction, where a character’s uncertainty and quest guide the story. Instead of people putting on masks of invulnerability, as they tend to do in real life, characters revel in their vulnerability. Confusion mixes with needs and desires, causing characters to leap and lunge in good ways and bad ways in their search for satisfaction, comfort, and love. In a novel, the righteous, the know-it-alls, tend to get their comeuppance. The hero is the one who can live and sometimes even thrive in a teetering world, and it’s good for us to engage in such uncertainty.
“Fiction can allow us brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think,” said George Saunders. “We can’t stay there very long. It’s not in our nature. You can be truly confused by something and then ten minutes later you’re grasping for your opinions like somebody going for a life jacket. But that brief exposure to the land of ambiguity is really, really good for us. To be genuinely confused about something for even a few seconds is good because it opens us up to the idea that what we know right now is not complete.”
Another word for the “land of ambiguity” is life. Imagine if people’s social media posts revealed their confusion, if we wore our uncertainty as a badge of honor.
Montaigne grounded his thought in doubt, even coining the word for his reflections “essais” — attempts. The main character of his essays is “Myself,” which he describes as “bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal.” His self is full of such contradictory and competing traits because he lives in the “land of ambiguity,” a place that doesn’t allow for the dominance of any single trait that’s the right way to live or be.
Montaigne knew that humans are beasts full of contradictions, that logic contends with irrationality and virtue never truly wins over sin, so we have no business being righteous.
Doubt is the beginning of wisdom.
The poet Ranier Marie Rilke gave perhaps the best writing (and life) advice of all in his Letters to a Young Poet. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
When you live the questions as a writer or reader, you’re plumbing your vulnerability, touching a deeper self, revealing all of the good and bad you’re capable of.
As the writer Chris Abani puts it: “The point is to dissolve oneself into the journey of the protagonist, to face the most terrifying thing in narrative, the thing that has been at its heart since the earliest campfire and story. To dare ourselves to imagine, to conjure and then face all of our darkness and all of our light simultaneously. To stand in that liminal moment when we have no solid ground beneath us, no clear firmament above, when the ambiguity of our nature reveals what we are capable of, on both sides.”
To conjure and then face all of our darkness and all of our light simultaneously.
Doubt is the beginning of wisdom. I wonder if we should spend an entire year of high school or college simply immersing ourselves in a curriculum focused only on doubt, exploring all aspects of it, celebrating it. Perhaps we should create a Church of Doubt and attend its services each Sunday morning as a way to prepare for the week ahead.
We’ve strayed so far from from Rene Descartes’ method of skepticism, which formed the foundation of Western thought. Descartes put all beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and matter under a microscope of intense scrutiny in his search for what he could truly know. To be “woke” for Descartes was a matter of living the questions, not the certitudes.
Too much doubt can lead to a paralysis of action, to excesses of conspiracy theories, to distrust of the world, but if we all honored and revered our doubt as a strength, not a weakness, we’d certainly be less likely to build a moat around a political party, a religion, or a school of thought.
We’d also be less likely to build a moat around ourselves. Because doubt spawns tolerance. Doubt spawns acceptance. Doubt spawns enlightenment.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.