On doubt

Sam Smith

If we had been born in a time in which the therapy for doubt was punishment, even death, we would not be in such a fix. We would thank or fear whatever gods may be and go about our business if not happily at least with certitude. But the gift of decriminalized doubt changed all that. We are now free to be wrong by our own hand, to not know — worse, to have nothing and no one to blame.

That’s why there are so many attempts to put the question marks safely back into the box, to recapture the illusion of security found in circumscribed knowledge, to shut down that fleeting moment of human existence in which at least some thought they could do the work of kings and gods, that glimpse of possibility we thought would be an endless future.

It is seductively attractive to return to certainty at whatever cost, to a time when one’s every act carried its own explanation in the rules of the universe or of the system or of the village. From the Old Testament to neo-Nazism, humans have repeatedly found shelter in absolutes and there is nothing in our evolution to suggest we have lost the inclination, save during those extraordinary moments when a wanderer, a stranger, a rebel picks up some flotsam and says, “Hey, something’s wrong here. . .” And those of us just standing around say, “You know, you’ve got something there.” And we become truly human once more as we figure out for ourselves, and among ourselves, what to do about it.

No one seeks doubt, yet without it we become just one more coded creature moving through nature under perpetual instruction. Doubt is the price we pay for being able to think, play, pray and feel the way we wish, if, of course, we can decide what that is. Which is why freedom always has so many more questions than slavery. Which is why democracy is so noisy and messy and why love so often confounds us.

If we are not willing to surrender our freedom, then we must accept the hard work that holding on to it entails including the nagging sense that we may not be doing it right after all; that we may not be rewarded even if we do it right; and that we will never know whether we have or not..

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