A child takes her parent’s hand at the age of two or three, with confidence. She looks up and smiles. She doesn’t doubt; the world assures her that her parent will hold on tightly, and keep her safe.
The world is complicated. We learn to move beyond ourselves – to question and to observe; we learn doubt. What we once relied on is crowded out by variations in circumstances and human behaviors that we experience. This is the inevitable consequence of maturing.
Objects break. Accidents happen. Adults are fallible. Motives are often hidden. We find ourselves on the receiving end of a constant flow of impressions and incidents that form us and condition us. We realize how much is out of our control.
Doubt is a special word. We use it in the context of everyday life, in counterbalance to notions of faith, and we recognize it as a potent term when it comes to the American judicial system. “Beyond reasonable doubt” is a phrase of considerable significance.
Doubt, in its variations
So what is reasonable doubt, particularly in our daily experience? Uncertainty is something we expect, we guard against, and we plan for. Certainties are few, though we cannot “doubt it all” any more than we can dispense with doubt altogether.
The free dictionary offers several definitions of doubt:
To be undecided or skeptical about; to tend to disbelieve or distrust; to regard as unlikely; to suspect or fear.
And from these definitions we see doubt’s utility: appropriate distrust in situations where we are wise to be cautious, and even a healthy fear of belief when the outcome we desire is unlikely.
But children and adults both are easily conditioned. When we lose faith in our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our “systems” – doubt becomes a constant presence, and an insidious one. Trust erodes, and our lives narrow.
Doubt on our shoulders
When the years are tough ones, it becomes hard to believe that good things are possible. At least, that good things are possible for you. It is simpler to doubt their appearance in your daily life, or if they do occur, to doubt their longevity. It’s a matter of self-protection. Conditioning. And emotional survival. It’s about trust – in others, in your judgment, or in that “grand scheme” we may think of as the universe, a confluence of inexplicable forces, or even karma.
Perhaps we fear we’ve angered the gods.
Yet who doesn’t have doubts – about something?
Doubt, self-esteem, belief in the future
Doubt may circle around a core of insecurity wherein we lack confidence in a specific ability or worse – we doubt our worth, or our future. These are common feelings in both men and women, though we’re taught not to admit to them. Sharing our vulnerabilities is relegated to the therapist’s office, or pillow talk, or possibly a few too many cocktails with an old friend.
Success in relationships may restore self-esteem. Success at a job may reinforce belief in abilities. When “life” is going well for a period of time, it can restore what feels like a long spell of bad luck.
I am confident in my abilities. I am confident in my value as a person. But confidence in the future is something that eludes me, where once I thought that my abilities and my belief provided enough control to set the possible paths forward with only the “usual” obstacles and detours to deal with.
Is skepticism a matter of conditioning?
Life has taught me other lessons. Life after divorce, life after layoff, life in a bad economy.
Life has conditioned me to doubt the future despite all the areas in which I am confident. I am afraid to look too far ahead, afraid to believe that “life” might proceed smoothly, afraid to believe that Murphy and his damnable law aren’t lurking behind the next door.
And things are beginning to improve at the moment. I might venture to say they are going reasonably well, but I don’t dare. So I’ll stick to “things are improving at the moment.”
I know this fear to be tied to a decade of endings, to starting over and over again, though not by choice.
I would like to believe I’ve turned a corner, that I can cast doubt in the gutter, that I can retain the good sense to keep perspective and humility, that by moderating my optimism I can hedge my bets.
If I do not, if it all goes south again, I doubt my strength to pick up the pieces.
Doubt as a life skill?
Doubt is comforting and at times, helpful. But it may be a place to hide. Is it a reasonable way of life?
- Do you doubt your abilities? Your value?
- Do you have doubts in one context and not in others?
- How do you guard against being overly skeptical? Overly optimistic?
- Can doubt and optimism coexist?
- Do you use your awareness of uncertainty to your advantage?
- Is doubt a healthy distrust unless it becomes excessive?