A Doubt About It
When I was 19 and a student at Queensborough Community College, I’d visit my girlfriend Judy Greenberg on Staten Island where she lived with her boyfriend (yeah you read that right; ah, the sixties…) and on the wall beside her bed she’d scrawled these words:
I don’t know: Do people scrawl things on the wall anymore like we did? We grew up believing that the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls, and the tenement halls. But that’s another story.
Back to my point. The words struck me then as simplistic. But as you see, I never forgot them.
Before this, as a boy growing up** if I would state anything with conviction and my father was in the room, he’d invariably say:
But are you sure?
Which of course wasn’t a question at all, but like most questions, a disguised statement, namely: You’re wrong. And although he might have been right about that, he would ask this niggling little question so often and as a matter of course, that this image of him became rolled into a tape loop that plays on my subliminal YouTube…constantly.
So I think things through…and through. Over time, I’ve become the expert on the nuances of nuances. And invariably I doubt and second-guess myself. (At least I think I do. I’ll have to get back to you on that.) Maybe it’s my way of keeping him close by, but a doubting father is always standing right behind me, and so I go through life feeling like I’ve got no back up. And without that, having a backbone hasn’t come very easily.
My gut knows; my mind overrules.
So in the middle of a conflict with someone, I often feel on shaky ground, no matter how right my position may be. Because, well, how can I be sure?
I once went to a workshop where two men had a conflict and were put in the middle of the circle to sit facing each other to work it out. After a few minutes of this, the leader chose two other men to sit behind them and place their hand on each man’s back. I got the point right away. That’s the helping hand I never feel.
Years later I did that Sterling Men’s Weekend I sometimes talk about, and in it Justin Sterling speaks of “becoming the man you always wanted to be”. For me it’s the kind of man who speaks his mind and says his piece, without having a doubt or giving a damn about what anyone else thinks of him. Total confidence. I think most men admire such a guy. One day I hope to be like that myself.
Oh I’m better than I used to be. More willing to speak up and disagree, voice my dissent; challenge another; assert myself and pull my punches less. But although I may appear self-assured, inside I’m insecure, with an internal little kid who’s always afraid that he’s wrong yet again and is about to be put in his place.
So I might tend to make a statement and then say, “But on the other hand…”
And while it’s good to have come of age in these complex times with a head that questions everything, including itself, it’s also been debilitating. Yes, doubt, along with its step-brother skepticism, can help me see both sides to every story, which can come in handy in the consulting room, especially when treating couples (as my wife likes to say, “There’s his side; her side; and the truth”). But it’s one thing to be able to see another’s bullshit, or admit my own; it’s quite another to find myself at times lacking the courage of my convictions.
These times call for both — questioning and conviction. This is the difference between Republicans and Democrats. The elephants in the room are cocksure of themselves, say what they mean, and mean what they say. (Omitting Mitt, that is.) You can count on them to do exactly what they say they will do. And be dead wrong. The jackasses, on the other hand, can see the other guy’s point of view, understand and empathize, and question everything, including themselves. They tend to be right, but almost entirely ineffectual.
And I know all this to be true. But am I sure?
Actually, yes. I’m getting tired of these old mental habits. Thank God.
Uh, there is a God, right?
** When asked where I grew up, I like to say, “I was raised in Great Neck; I grew up when I left”.