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A Doubt About It

April 10, 2012

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:

                                                            Doubt Destroys

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”.

 

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Tresa permalink
    April 10, 2012 12:19 pm

    My parents used to say, “never always,” when my sisters and I would be upset about something and would say, “you always…”. I know now that they were, indeed, being insensitive and unfair, but what were they supposed to do, up against four girls?

    I also feel no reassuring hand on my shoulder. I wonder if anyone does. Maybe those who exude unshakeable confidence that we so desire to have?

    As a parent, I don’t know the line, yet, between teaching them that there’s room for doubt, and teaching them to doubt themselves. Any thoughts on the matter?

  2. Daniel Wininger permalink
    April 10, 2012 1:56 pm

    Self confidence and confidence in knowing are completely different things. You can NEVER be objectively sure, but you can always be subjectively sure. Accepting subjectivity and foolishness is the key to toning down all that cognitive dissonance, but not the key to attaining this mythical “self confidence.”

    Those who accept their wrongness are those that we think have “confidence”, and those who reject their wrongness in an attempt to become “right” are the self-doubters. But we are all consistently wrong, on at least one level of reality.

  3. dave abramowitz permalink
    April 10, 2012 2:32 pm

    Man, Daniel Wininger lost me. In regards to his comments, I can confidently say what a load of piffle and overanalytical foofahrah , , ,

  4. Rich permalink
    April 10, 2012 6:25 pm

    Whenever I start a new working relationship (which, as someone in the theater, happens regularly), I admit that I’m a person of strong opinions, but that none is stronger than this one: I’m not right all the time.

    Once I’ve said that, I feel more comfortable in expressing myself fully and confidently.

    • April 13, 2012 4:44 am

      I really appreciate your wise words! I can be confident and assertive, if I allow the possibility that I could be wrong, and allow myself to readily admit it when I see I am. Thank you, Rich.

      • Daniel Wininger permalink
        April 13, 2012 3:11 pm

        That’s essentially what I was saying in my post. I hope it didn’t come across as “overanalytical foofahrah” to you too! Confidence comes from accepting the possibility of being wrong, not being right.

  5. April 11, 2012 3:13 am

    Doubt is a good thing. Skepticism was an important philosophical thread in the development of the modern world view, including modern science. Doubt is liberating. It frees you from dogma and irrational belief. It enables you to question authority. It opens your eyes. And by the way, nuance and balance are good things. If when your father asked “are you sure?” he really meant “you’re wrong and I’m right” then the real problem isn’t that you doubt yourself but that you feel small, not just in the literal sense of being small, but in the sense of being inferior.

  6. dave abramowitz permalink
    April 11, 2012 5:03 am

    Can you doubt love when you love, love truly? No, you just love; that’s all.
    Do you or you doubt you’re breathing? Do you need a machine or a second or third opinion to confirm it? Do you doubt you’re the one doing the seeing? Do you doubt there are higher states of clarity that greater explain it all? No, you just know there is, because our whole lives are a process not just of doubting and reflecting on our doubts but of greater waking up.
    Do you doubt there’s such an ordered, wondrously created universe we can happily spend our whole lives further trying to explore and celebrating the great findings?
    We are that universe, too. We are not separate.

    Doubt has its proper place as Ed said, if it makes us more human, more humble, but the Western tradition of doubting everything and believing everything is just purely relative is not essentially integrative and gives no place for faith. It concentrates on noting the details, but often ignores acknowledging and feeling the masterpiece. Should one doubt that there are greater and greater states of consciousness, and, if so, then why shouldn’t pure consciousness be possible?
    Do you doubt you love your cat or your wife, Charley?
    Do you doubt Norah Jones is in every way beautiful, too?! Do you need to know why she’s beautiful. No, she’s beautiful – That’s all! Of course, you could reflect on her beauty to realize how she’s even more beautiful, but as Kazantzakis had Zorba say in Zorba The Greek, “Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything . . .”

    Too much doubting can put one in disconnect mode , and often does . . .

    Just like it’s said in Ecclesiastes and in the song, Turn, Turn, Turn, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” So, there’s a time to entertain doubting and a time to put doubts aside, and in the language of Zen, perhaps Christian Zen, just become the seeing , , , But if doubting serves you and makes you realize how much it’s all greater, then it can be all to the good, too . . . To paraphrase Brother Rick, we all make mistakes sometimes

  7. April 11, 2012 2:26 pm

    Another great post, Charley. I find that youth *knows* he is right, but experience and wisdom accept that “right” may be different depending on how one looks at it.

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