Self-Doubt in a Culture of Certainty

I wouldn’t call my current state an intellectual crisis, though it might be. A crisis implies a dilemma, where one no longer believes in one’s former way of living and thinking yet hesitates before the alternatives. For me, something quieter is going on. I see the possibility of another level of thinking and writing but have not reached it yet. So I question many a sentence of that I have written, many a concept that I have embraced. At this point, I don’t reject my former ideas but see a need to sharpen them. (The sharpening may lead to the discarding of some.)

Such periods of transition can be exhilarating and upsetting at the same time—exhilarating because of the new understandings, upsetting because of the embarrassment. For me, the mix is bitterer than it has to be, because I have taken a culture of certainty a bit too much to heart. We live in a world where people brandish their views (or the views of a group) and lash at those who disagree. Once they say their say, they stand by it. If they waver at all, then they’re perceived as weak. I see through most of this, but some of it gets to me anyway, as it seeps into everyday life.

To think well, you need some removal from that environment. You need room to consider whether you might be wrong—or whether you might have used a word carelessly or failed to consider a possibility. None of that is weakness, unless it turns into self-indulgence. The self-criticism, or assessment of one’s thoughts and words, needs both sustenance and defense.

It’s difficult to find a place for uncertainty. As a teacher, one often has to act more certain than one is. I don’t mean that one pretends to know things one doesn’t know, or states things as fact that are open to question. (I do that sometimes without meaning to do so; the words slip out of me, and I catch them.) Rather, one has to present the material in a coherent manner, and that often involves simplifications. I often walk out of class asking myself questions about the lesson I just presented or about statements I made. It is good to do this, if I then have time to think through those questions and read carefully. Often there’s insufficient time; I have to rush to the next class, correct hundreds of homework assignments, attend meetings, and catch up with paperwork.

So the time left in the day for thinking is scarce, and one must take good care to guard it. It is all too easy to get into an online discussion or argument where neither side is looking to be enriched and where little ultimately gets said. It is easy, also, to sound wiser than one is when in an ephemeral setting—to be a vanishing frog croaking over a vanishing marsh. How much effort I have put, at times, into blog comments that were later forgotten (as far as I know) by all involved!

Also, it is not just a matter of thinking over what one has said. One must read a great deal (of carefully chosen books) in order to think well. The books that help me think better are those with discernment and wit; those that go far beyond the slipshod; those that jolt me wisely, not cheaply; those that hold beauty. I have commented recently on one such book; I have more thoughts about it but will let them work in my mind. Other books have been on my mind too. In order to read such books, one must set aside protected time for them.

I speak in terms of protection because interruptions and temptations are many. In particular, one is tempted (or I have been tempted) to seek the “quick fix” of blogging and other online writing. I don’t take this to extremes—and I put thought into what I do post online—yet I know the satisfaction of getting responses (however few), including those that don’t challenge me. In subtle ways one can shortchange one’s intellectual life for a short-lived kick, a sense that one’s words reach someone. I want to do more than reach someone. I want to get to the bone of things worth saying—and say them in that bony yet graceful way. I want to say it in a book, because then it’s less likely to be read in a rush. (People do read books for quick “takeaways,” but it’s possible to make clear that your book is not of that sort.)

That’s the other side of it. At some point uncertainty must come to an end; one must lay out that sentence. That must not happen too soon, but it must happen. If holds back for fear of saying something incorrect or incomplete, then the fools (including one’s own internal fools) will have their way. Blaise Pascal said, “Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”  This applies to the writer as it does to to the person choosing whether or not to believe in God. One must say something, if that is what one has set out to do. But learning when to say it and when to hold back–learning how long to work on something before putting it forward–takes staunchness, vigilance, and a strong sense of measure.

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4 Comments

  1. I, too, feel uncertain much of the time but I am certain that this is a wonderful post.

    Reply
  2. ℞ John Dewey • The Quest for Certainty

    Reply
    • Thank you for the recommendation. I am skeptical of Dewey’s thesis here, but that isn’t a good reason to ignore it. I’ll keep the book in mind for possible future reading.

      Closer to home for me (on this topic) are Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life.”

      Reply

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