Lunchtime Ramblings #2

On Uncertainty and Doubt


I enjoyed a conversation last night with a good friend. As is typical with this friend, the conversation ranged from the deeply philosophical to the randomly absurd. One thing she said last night stuck with me, though. It really made me think. She said basically (I’m paraphrasing here, I lack the proper eloquence needed to express the idea as she did): “I will always have doubts. In every area of life, from how I view myself, to my relationships with my friends and family, and even about my course and choices I have made in life, there will always be doubts in the back of my mind.”

The thing that struck me about this sentiment, were not the words themselves, but how they were said. They were uttered with a potent heaviness, a sort of weary admittance of some kind of personal flaw. They were spoken as if admitting defeat. I didn’t know quite how to respond to this sentiment at the time, but it’s been rolling around in my head since last night, so I think I’ll take a stab at trying to express my thoughts in my rambling today.

The main thought that I feel I took away from what my friend said and how she said it was that doubts are bad. This isn’t an uncommon idea. Most reasonable people crave a certain degree of definiteness or certainty in most areas of life. After all, It’s difficult to imagine going through a life of complete uncertainty, completely unsure of who you can trust, unsure of who you are and where you stand on anything, unsure of where your next meal will come from, unsure of everything. No, that would be an immensely burdensome way to live. Certainty is comforting. It makes us feel good to know that our friend who loved us yesterday will still love us tomorrow. We feel confident when we “know” we are right about something, whether it’s an answer to a trivia question or our approach to an ethical problem. It seems, perhaps, that our minds crave certainty. We want to know, absolutely and without question, that we are doing the right thing.

Unfortunately for our certainty craving minds, it’s absolutely impossible to completely remove uncertainty from the equation. Some level of uncertainty is built into every system, every idea, every relationship, and every person. As distasteful as this idea may be to us, it appears to be the way things work. There is really nothing we can do to remove all traces of uncertainty from our lives. But why is it that some uncertainties bother us and others do not? Very few people (besides meteorologists) stress too much about what the weather will be like tomorrow. If it rains, we’ll bring an umbrella. If it’s hot we’ll wear short sleeves. The weather tomorrow generally has a fairly minimal impact on our life course and therefore we don’t (generally) stress about it too much. However, if say, the uncertainty was instead whether (not weather) we have chosen the best career path for ourselves, most people will stress much, much more about that type of uncertainty.

This is where doubts come back into the picture. Doubts are simply the mind’s way of dealing with uncertainty. In areas of life that have a greater impact on us, doubts will be more uncomfortable to have. They will cause more of a burden on us depending on the impact to our lives. But are doubts bad? Is it wrong to doubt? Are doubts harmful to us?

Doubts, in a way, can be likened to physical pain. Is pain bad? Well, most of us would agree that too much pain is indeed a bad thing. But is a little bit of pain equally bad? Think about all the situations in life that might cause us minor degrees of physical pain. You thought you turned off the stove but when you reach for that pot, it’s still very hot. You’re out in the sun for a while and you feel your skin starting to burn and tingle. You begin to feel a toothache or a stomach ache. Or maybe you’re like me and you spend too many hours typing away at a keyboard and your hands and wrists start to feel sore. The list can go on and on. The point is that, for all the above cases (and most of the cases where our bodies are inflicted with some minor pain) the actual sensation of pain serves as a protection. The sensation of pain from touching the hot pot protects us from keeping our hand on the pot and damaging our skin. The tingling of a sunburn protects us from exposing ourself to even more harmful levels of the sun’s radiation. A toothache or stomach ache may be signs that we need to see a doctor, thus preventing the root cause of the pain from getting worse. And sore hands and wrists can remind us to take a break and step away from the keyboard for a while, which is healthy to do for many reasons. The point is, that just as pain can serve as a warning system to protect our bodies from additional harm, doubts serve as a mental warning system.

Doubts can be healthy. They alert us to paths in our life that may not be best for us. There is no shortage of foolish, dangerous, or even harmful courses of life that can be taken. Doubting that a certain course is right for us can protect us from doing things that will be bad for us. But just as with pain, there are degrees of doubt. If we have only minor doubts about a certain course, it’s quite likely that the course we have chosen will not be to our detriment. We should, however, keep an eye on the situation to see if our doubts become stronger or weaker as time goes on. If our doubts on a certain path or decision increase over time, it would be wise to take a closer look at what we’re doing. Working to isolate the root cause of the doubt, is a good way of affirming whether our concern is valid or not.

If however, we begin to experience major doubts about something, that is definitely a time to stop and think about what we’re doing. Something isn’t right. We might not know what it is, or why exactly we feel that way, but it’s very important to find out. Perhaps we have already embarked on a path that isn’t right for us. For our own sake, we must root out the cause of the doubt. And though this may be uncomfortable, or difficult, or scary, it is the only course that will lead us to have peace in the end. We should never be afraid to face any serious doubt we may have about anything. It takes courage and it takes strength, but the only other option is living with a divided mind, which will only cause us a great deal of mental anguish. If faced with serious doubts about a life changing matter, seek out a trusted friend, or family member. Someone who will strive to provide you with a neutral perspective on the matter. If you don’t have such a friend or family member (or maybe even if you do) a skilled psychologist can also help to provide you with the tools you need to face your challenge. The point is, you never have to go at it alone, and you will always feel much better after you have faced and tamed your serious doubts.

So is it wrong to have doubts? In all honesty, there are many who feel that the answer to that question is “yes”. That if you have doubts, you aren’t loyal enough or faithful enough, or in some way are lacking in character or moral quality. They might say that you need to suck it up, or trust in [insert ideology here] more, or pray more, or do some fasting, or study harder, or stick to your commitments. Pardon the strong words here, but that is bullshit. If you have doubts about something, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You are simply a human being that has been presented with an idea or decision, or path that doesn’t make complete sense to you. It’s possible that maybe you just don’t know enough about it yet. Maybe you just need to learn more about it to feel comfortable with it. It’s equally possible that it’s wrong. Or at least it’s wrong for you. There is no shame at all in admitting you are wrong. It takes a greater amount of strength and character to admit you are wrong than it does to just bury your head in the sand and ignore a serious doubt. Admitting you are wrong, or have taken a wrong step, or made a wrong decision, is the first (and most neccesary) step to fixing the problem. So please, never be afraid of being wrong. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with being wrong.

This rambling is getting quite lengthy and I am running over on my lunch break, but I would like to conclude by saying what I should have said to my friend last night. I should have said:

I know it can be scary or unsettling to have doubts about things in your life, but I hope you know that having doubts about anything in your life doesn’t make you a bad person. It means the opposite actually. It means that you are very concerned with doing the right things in your life and being a good person. Doubts just mean that you’re double checking the decisions you have made. This too is a good and healthy thing to do. Don’t ever be afraid of being wrong and be even less afraid of admitting it. We will all be wrong about some things and right about others. It’s just how life goes. But though it’s good and healthy to have doubts about nearly anything, one thing I wish you wouldn’t have doubts is about yourself. You have an amazing mind, and I’m certain that you will be able to sufficiently figure things out. But most of all, you have a truly good heart. You are compassionate, kind, caring, and fair. As long as you’re sincerely trying to do what’s right, and I know you are, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. You might doubt yourself, but I do not. I trust and have faith in you, that you’re going to do good things in your life. That is one thing that I don’t doubt at all.