BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
Why do I always assume the worst? Can I listen and actually allow that what you’re saying is honest, as you understand it? Can I believe you, even if I disagree? I live in a world where no one is given the benefit of the doubt. I read and listen to political and religious debates regularly. They both betray this attitude constantly. If I were to listen to others as they portray themselves, what would be threatened? Would I be at risk of losing an argument? Would I be at risk of maybe even changing my mind? Would I be at risk of losing what I hold dear? These are all real risks. Worthwhile risks. Am I to avoid all these things in order to avoid any risk?
Is it safe to question? Is it safe to question you? Is it safe to question me? What is my desire? I like to believe that it’s truth. Is it? Am I seeking after truth with a capital “T”? Is that what I’m seeking after? Or am I seeking after comfort? Am I searching for certainty so that I might be left to leisure in my thoughts and relationships? Is it really easier to be certain? It does, I suppose, provide a sort of temporary rest. But it’s a rest that isn’t steady. It’s a fitful rest, if there is such a thing. It’s a rest that constantly has to buttress the bulwarks of my assumptions. I want to be able to rest. I want to be able to sit for a while and not have to constantly fight for what I believe. But how do I confront from without when I struggle against more formidable foes from within?
Can I safely be generous? May I trust you to be honest with me? I have been wounded before. I have my calluses. They may be unseen. But they still exist. Bring me to you and let me trust you. I want to... I don’t want to. Help me to want to trust you. I also have my hidden sides. There are parts of me that I barely see, let alone reveal to others. Is this all part of what makes it so hard to trust the honesty of others? Do we instinctively attack in order to preempt what we suspect will be done to us? Is this preemption because we know that it’s our own desires that wage war against us inside? We see our own nefarious designs in others’ actions and attitudes, even if it isn’t their action or their attitude that we see, but ours. Are we afraid that our own instincts are going to betray us to others, betray that side of us that we try to keep hidden, well out of sight?
Not everyone is like this. I listen to those who believe differently than I do. I try at least. My interactions with these political and theological debates exist alongside my own struggles in all of my relationships. They are inseparable. I’ve seen the wreckage left behind by taking the worst sense and running with it. It’s usually done with the intention of scoring a momentary point, a tactical advantage; a battle skirmish won. It’s done out of fear, it’s done out of a sense of weakness. It’s done without thinking ahead to the consequences. It’s done with the hope that it will somehow lead to victory. It’s even done with the hope that it will lead to the truth. The truth. The truth. The truth gets slowly dimmed as tactics take precedence over honesty.
We don’t know all that can be known. This may sound like a silly statement. But we mostly act as if we are omniscient. We pretend that we can clearly see through to the heart of those we engage in debates with, as though we could see with an unspotted eye. We are proven wrong repeatedly, and then straightaway return to our strong delusional conviction that we can see clearly now. “She must have meant this.” “He obviously intended to…” and on and on. We assume that we can see into the motives. The very thing that we should acknowledge we know the least about is what we bravely state we know most clearly.
We shift in our stories. And each time it’s true to what our purpose is at the moment. If the passing moment brings with it new needs, the truth adjusts itself accordingly. It’s no less true, in that it serves to satisfy my temporary need of proving myself absolutely right. True truth may, in contrast to this bastardized version, be found in a simple acknowledgement of some doubt, even great doubt. But can I trust honesty? Can it be trusted to deliver the goods? Will I enjoy the benefits of the doubt? Actually, the “goods” are found in the honesty that allows the doubt to surface. That is the benefit of the doubt. We grow in that.
Yet, is that all there is? Is it enough to settle for doubt? Can doubt provide rest? Can doubt give me what I need? Is it ultimate? Honest doubt serves a better end than itself. It doesn’t serve to lead us to absolute certainty. That’s just foolish. The moment we find ourselves completely certain, we’ve lied to ourselves somewhere. It’s there. It may be tucked away somewhere in a corner, but it’s there. Usually it’s the corner we’ve just cut that we can find the lie.
And so we have shortcuts. Shortcuts, of thought. Shortcuts, of need. Thinking selfishly. Settling for what should only lead us on to greater satisfactions. Stopgaps. Mental coat hangers wrapped around emotional mufflers, wheezing out its sickness. It holds the problem at bay until it can be dealt with later; all the while the problem is not tended to. The inner workings suffer as the corrosion takes its toll. We sit with our windows rolled up tight, not hearing the noise that disturbs all those around us. Always hoping that we can make it to the next destination, a destination that will somehow magically heal what ails us. And so we run.
Avoiding the inevitable. It’s like those dreams where the more you run, the more your feet get bogged down and the slower you go. It will catch up to you. Whatever “it” is. Admitting a doubt or two is also healthy here. It can lead to coming to terms with what’s been haunting you; what’s been lurking around the edges, like a beggar, trying not to be seen too much, but just enough to be fed. Willing to live in the periphery of existence, so as not to offend, but needing to be seen, needing to be seen as our peripheral vision.
These untended corners speak in moments of unintended quietness. A glimpse of a sight that leads to disquieting questions. We usually quickly resume the busyness that can cure us of reality. A busyness that instills its own hypnotic trance. Doubts can be the first glimmerings of awakening from this deep slumber. We begin to awaken from this catatonic state when we begin to question the assumptions buttressing our lifelong framework. This framework, which begins from nearly our first breath, shelters us from the storms of life. It provides a lens through which we can see the world and make sense of it. This framework, if it’s not based on the actual reality surrounding us, this reality inhering within us, can be deadly. Some frameworks mislead. They can picture unreality.
How often do we decide something quickly? Partly due to time pressures, the urgency of the moment, the sense that “something” must be done, or sometimes just intellectual laziness lets us settle for an answer. Then, when we’ve decided, it’s all or nothing. The Magisterium has spoken. Our pride has proclaimed “Truth” ex cathedra. May it never be contradicted! The hardness of this is like that cement that hardens around our ankles as we run from the beast that chases us in that dream. We slog. We slip the bonds of freedom and slowly sink into the sand that we thought was so solid.
Sand is nothing but rock broken into little pieces. Sometimes it can be broken up dramatically in one smashing moment. Usually it happens slowly, chipping away incrementally, imperceptively, like a background noise, scratching away at the edges. Hissing away as we try to ignore the static. The static irritates. It rankles our nerves. It unsettles our senses. Whether it’s the burr in the saddle, or the slightly off frequency signal, or the low-grade headache that lurks in the shadows, it breaks down anything solid under the pressure, little by little. Yet we build. We build and build, hoping that the fractures won’t be seen, least of all by us. If I close my eyes, nobody else will see it. Right? And so we slap on another coat. But the crack slips through. It’s amazing how much energy has to go into keeping up appearances.
But ironically, the structural defects themselves speak. Remember that hiss, that burr, that low-grade fever? They all stand alongside doubt. They speak when doubt is silenced. The balloon will bulge out when squeezed, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. That’s the strange thing about reality. The nature of nature is that it is inherently self-correcting. That’s not to say that irrevocable damage is never done. Sometimes it is. Too many times it is. But there are limits. Doubts are limits. Doubts are limits before they become too dangerous. They are the first symptoms. Doubts are, when we are healthy, our moral nerve endings, letting us know when the flame is coming too close.
Doubts can offer us a language of reconnection. Doubt can speak to the void of brokenness that pervades our interactions, interactions between people, lovers, friends, families, nations.
The word “doubt” and the word “brink” are rarely, if ever, found in the same sentence, and with good reason. It is when we have jettisoned doubt early on that we eventually find ourselves standing at the precipice, standing at the brink. One too many words spoken in an argument that never needed to begin. That fateful word said because of a pride kept hard. So many skirmishes won. So many wars lost. So many relationships…lost. A whole litany of words that hold painful meanings. All because doubt wasn’t allowed in. Interior debates cut short by mental partisans claiming territory, claiming words, claiming meanings, for their own. Nothing is allowed that might give an inch to any competing claim.
Doubt is a guest we rarely entertain. Doubt scares us too much. It raises questions. It puts assumptions to the test. It’s like a child who doesn’t know any better and says what is obvious, always to the embarrassment of those around it. Doubt doesn’t know decorum very well. It exposes. It reveals. It shames the shamers.
I want to be free. I want to be certain. I want to know what is true. Doubt stands in my way. Doubt stands before me like a guardian sentry, blocking my access to that which I desire above all else. Doubt refuses to give me entry to the space that will finally provide me the answers, the wisdom, the clarity. The day may come when I can stand in that place. Until then, I am thankful for doubt’s stubborn refusal to give up the fight and let me in. Doubt has given me an ear to hear the voices of others, voices that sometimes don’t agree with me.
It might be asked of me; are you denying any ability to know or believe anything? Aren’t you giving yourself over to excessive introspection, to the exclusion of external reality? These are fair questions, especially in light of what I’ve just written. Yet what I’m raising as a concern is not so much the question of whether we can know, but of what we do with what we do know, or think we know. I believe I can know. I even believe that I can know that I know. In fact, I would dare say that I know that I know. I’m no post-modernist, though they have a tremendous amount to say that deserves a good listening. There is true truth. I believe we can even know true truth. My problem with myself is that knowing true truth is not the same as knowing truth truthfully. I know all too well that I have never known truth truthfully, and it’s almost always been due to my own choosing not to. Even when it’s initially been due to nothing intentional, I respond with unfounded certainties, somehow hoping against hope to cover those loose ends up. That’s my concern. That’s who, I believe, we are.