Doubt often feels to us like it is an awareness of truth. Doubt is when we stop our wishful thinking and pull off the band-aid of hope and realize that things are not so great, they are certainly not what we wish them to be, and they’re not getting better. Doubt is the courage to cut through the positive spin and acknowledge something uncomfortable. Doubt feels bold. Doubt feels brave. Doubt feels efficient.

And sometimes doubt is all those things. Doubt lets us free ourselves from illusions. Doubt lets us disentangle ourselves from false assumptions. Doubt lets us change our thinking. Doubt is a virtue.

But if doubt is a virtue why is it so tempting? Why are we drawn to it with the kind of eagerness that more often attaches to a vice?

That’s because doubt is a convenient mechanism for escaping something difficult. It is difficult to hope. It is difficult to push forward. It is difficult to try. Doubt releases us from the burden. Doubt says we don’t need to struggle to make things better because the effort is futile. Doubt is excitement about not having to work. Doubt is secret relief, flowing from the conclusion that hope is pointless so the work of maintaining hope is unnecessary.

The enigma of doubt is that when we’re feeling it, we can’t often tell which kind of doubt it is. Is our doubt rooted in bravery or cowardice? Is it rooted in our desire to know the truth or in our laziness?

We give doubt the benefit of the doubt, more often than not. We tend to think we’re doubting for good reasons, that our doubt is the brave kind — the kind that comes from asking bold questions, acknowledging the uncomfortable things we discover, and realizing that our former optimism was unfounded.

But a person should always ask:

  • How does this doubt make my life easier?
  • How does this doubt absolve me of the responsibility to do something difficult?
  • How does this doubt give me an excuse to quit a project or abandon an effort that has become painful?

If it turns out that our doubt is very convenient, we might want to stop and examine that convenience more carefully.

Perhaps we are not doubting because we’ve discovered a cold, hard truth through a process of objective inquiry. Perhaps we are doubting because we’ve discovered a useful tool for reducing the discomfort of having to try, having to persist. Perhaps our doubt has an ulterior motive. Perhaps our doubt is laziness or fear disguised as courageous truth-seeking.

If I tell myself, “I’m never going to finish writing this essay,” what purpose does that serve? If I tell myself, “My work is pointless and no one is going to read it,” what purpose does that serve?

It’s escapism. I’m imagining an easier life. A life with fewer responsibilities. A life in which I don’t have to be burdened with finishing what I’ve started. But my doubt doesn’t feel like escapism. I’d rather dream that my work is important and that it’s going to be appreciated someday. That dream feels like the true escapism here, and my doubt feels like the antidote.

Doubts can well-founded and convenient at the same time.

My doubt about this essay might be well-founded indeed: maybe there’s truly no point in finishing it? Maybe I’ll discover that someone else wrote a similar essay years ago, only it’s better than mine. Or maybe I’ll find that I disagree tomorrow with what I spent all this time writing today and I’ll want to scrap the whole thing.

But whether my doubts are well-founded or not – this distinction does not control whether my doubts serve a practical purpose for me. In this case they do. They happen to provide me an off-ramp from the frustration of continuing to work on a project that’s slow-going and difficult. They offer an escape, a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s easier to believe “I’m never going to finish writing this essay,” because then I might as well stop right now.

Are you doubting something at the moment?

I can’t tell you whether that doubt is justified. I can’t tell you what’s fueling that doubt. I can’t tell you whether that doubt is good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong.

To discover this, ask the question: How useful is my doubt to me? And how much would I like a reason to quit what I’m pursuing?

If a doubt is very, very, very useful to you, that might be the reason why you are using it. ■

Comments ༄