Wednesday, March 22, 2023


Doubt was one of the defining words of the 20th century, and remains a defining word today. With roots in the 19th century and even earlier, the idea of doubt, not just doubting one's self but, indeed, the very nature of existence itself.

Part of that comes from the idea of impermanence, of the frightening feeling that it is impossible to gain footing in quicksand. Impermanence is a major characteristic of Buddhist teaching: "Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. This act is real spiritual practice—gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place."

Sensei Sevan Ross, director of the Chicago Zen Center.

And in Hinduism as well:  “Having doubts is a hallmark of an active, questioning mind. Even though teachers may clarify doubts, other perplexities are bound to arise when a student engages with a problem deeply. Unfortunately, modern society does not necessarily provide a space for a doubting mind to come to terms with itself.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

In the European and Middle Eastern traditions, doubt is not always seen as sinful.

From the Jewish tradition:

Normally, we think of religious doubt as an obstacle to faith. From another perspective, it can be seen as a seed for deeper faith, a stimulus for religious growth.

R. Gil Student

From the Christian perspective:

So why do so many Christians seem afraid of doubt? Perhaps they’re afraid of where the questions will lead. Christians have fallen into the trap of thinking that faith is blind, that doubt is the enemy of belief, or that doubters will inevitably lose their faith.

Philip Long

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”

Khalil Gibran.

And, finally, from one of my own human gods, Heraclitus, who seemed to know everything before anyone else had even thought of the questions.

“He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.”

For me, that is the very nature of doubt. It is doubt that takes us to new places and expands who we are by putting us in touch with our potential, like the tree that lays dormant in a seed.

In the late 19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries, doubt became the very basis for one of the great schools of philosophy – existentialism – with Nietzsche, Kafka, and Camus as three of its guiding lights.

Friedrich Nietzsche

On doubt as sin: “Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.
Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

"Belief in the truth commences with the doubting of all those 'truths'we once believed."

“Truth will have no gods before it . . . The belief in truth begins with the doubt of all truths in which one has previously believed.”

Delphi Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche

“Not doubt, certainty is what drives one insane.”

“On the Genealogy of Morals”

Franz Kafka

“My doubts stand in a circle around every word, I see them before I see the word, but what then! I do not see the word at all, I invent it.”

“I am a memory come alive: autobiographical writings”

Albert Camus

Doubts are the innermost corner of our souls. One must not talk about his doubts, whatever they may be.”

“Absurdism, like methodical doubt, has wiped the slate clean. It leaves us in a blind alley. But, like methodical doubt, it can, by returning upon itself, open up a new field of investigation, and in the process of reasoning then pursues the same course. I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest.”

“The absurd is a shadow cast over everything we do and even if we try to live life as if it has meaning as if there are reasons for doing things the absurd will linger in the back of our minds as a nagging doubt that perhaps there is no point.”

Notebooks, 1942-1951

One of the great experiences of my life was sitting at the Café de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, knowing we where Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir had sat in the late '40s and 50's, smoking their (to me) foul-smelling Gauloise cigarettes, with James Baldwin perhaps joining them. We had an unexpectedly existentialist moment when three young American women sat nearby (we were at outside tables) and, shortly, demanded to know, in English, why they could not get wi-fi reception. The waiter was very patient. They ordered nothing but water, left no tip, and left. I had my own doubts at that point. Fortunately the cheese omelets were fabulous.

At the end of his life, in the last story of his last book, Exile and the Kingdom, Camus has a person helping to literally shoulder another's burden, in what seems to me a positive answer to doubt.

Coming to terms with doubt has also confronted many artists. Here are a few striking moments of doubt in art.

1. Fellini, at the end of La Strada, when the protagonist ends up desperately and hopelessly clutching handfuls of sand after he causes the inadvertent death of his innocent beloved.

2. Munch's The Scream, which is actually more about despair, but doubt can be a way station en route to despair.

3. Samuel Beckett, the Irish existentialist par excellence, from Waiting for Godot: Estragon: “You’re sure it was this evening?”

Vladimir: “What?”

Estragon: “That we were told to wait.”

Vladimir: “He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.”,

Fabulous casting with Zero Mostel and Burgress Meredith; broadcast in 1961 on television.

Start near the end at 1:35, with “I can't go on!” Of course, they go on.

4. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 6, the last movement.

Start at Minute 23.

Nielson was attuned to what seemed nothing less than the unraveling of centuries of harmonic development in the 1920s and 1930s, when it seemed that total chaos was imminent. In this late work, he makes fun of what is happening and realizes that laughter can be, indeed, the best medicine, especially when one has no idea where things are going.

5. The American existentialist par excellence is filmmaker Woody Allen who, unlike his existentialist idol and Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman who returned to the Lutheran faith of his father late in life, has remained true to the nature of doubt and the basic questions of existence even to his most recent movie, “Rifkin's Festival,” where, after half a century of making movies, he's still asking the meaning of life.

Perhaps Allen's most existential movie was “Starlight Express,” shot in black and white, in which he portrays a famous filmmaker, Sandy Bates, who attends a retrospective in his honor and meets a high school classmate who demands to know why Bates made it to the top while he didn't. And Bates assures him it was just chance, the roll of the dice, which the man doesn't want to believe.

At the end, Bates wonders if the creation of art is one answer to life's most pressing questions. Sometimes just asking the question might be enough.

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