Another Perspective

Gray Matters

Sometimes a little doubt is a good thing.

By 10.14.10

"The whole problem with the world," declared Bertrand Russell, "is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts."

As much as I hate to gainsay Lord Russell, I suspect few of the world's intractable problems can be alleviated by greater humility and circumspection -- but I take his point. The answers to so many larger problems seem neither black nor white, but myriad shades of gray. And the grayer I get, the grayer the answers appear to be.

"Only God and certain madmen have no doubts!" thundered the great malcontent Martin Luther. Nowhere is this more evident than in the misdeeds of the endless supply of death-wishing fanatics queuing for kamikaze duty. Confident their cause is righteous and holy, they have no doubt that God's approbation -- to say nothing of a passel of virgins -- awaits them in their Muslim-only country club version of an afterlife.

From its launch, Christianity seems to have accepted the inevitability of doubt. There was the apostle known as "Doubting Thomas," granted sainthood despite his rational disposition. Early church father Augustine of Hippo confessed to tearing his hair and banging his head in an (evidently successful) attempt to dispel his nagging doubts. And Mother Teresa, a shoo-in for sainthood, claimed to have undergone long periods of doubt throughout her life. While the church has never come out and praised doubt, it does seem to suggest that doubt is inevitable. I tend to disagree with the church (shocking, I know). I consider doubt both wise and inevitable.

I don't claim to be one of Bertie's "wiser people," and I certainly don't pretend to have very many answers. This is one reason I would make a lousy talk show host. I sometimes listen to talk radio on my morning commute and I am amazed how the hosts can ramble for hours without pausing for breath, let alone contemplation. Granted, much of what they say is wind, so much so that I quickly grow bored and find myself digging through the glove box for a book on CD.

This is also why I have no interest in appearing on one those Sunday morning television talk shows (not that I've been asked). My performance would be a disaster -- and not just because I am easily stage struck and would immediately begin hyperventilating and have to thrust my head between my knees, but because I have the very un-TV-friendly habit of looking at all sides of a subject. Viewers don't have the patience for that. They want someone whose ideas on every conceivable subject are simple and fixed, someone who has no doubt about anything.

The same applies to the writing of opinion pieces. I've written my fair share of op-eds and the one thing you don't want to do is appear wishy-washy. Readers do not want to waste two minutes of their precious time only to find the writer has not taken a strong stand on the issue and that his piece is loaded with ifs, ands, and buts. Strong stands, however, are not my forte. I might read something by Murray Rothbard that makes me conclude that anarcho-capitalism is the best philosophy, and the next day a piece by David Brooks will snap me back to the center. I've yet to read anything that sends me over to the Left's camp, but lately I do find myself preferring, in the late Joseph Sobran's words, "a literary, contemplative conservatism to the activist sort that [is] preoccupied with immediate political issues." That, too, is subject to change.

FORTUNATELY, MY DOUBTS are not of an existential nature, like those of a younger Woody Allen. "I am plagued by doubts," he said. "What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet." My doubts are more mundane and arise in large part because I sense most of life's great problems (war, poverty, rush-hour traffic) are insoluble. History teaches that all grand fix-it schemes (Marxism, Internationalism, the Welfare State) are doomed. Apparently, that is one lesson humanity will never learn.

As another election season creeps up on us, I am steeling myself for the inevitable blitz of politicians who seem unable to fix the most basic things -- like the giant pothole in front of my house, the one with so much gravitational pull that light cannot escape -- yet continually promise that given a few years and a large enough slice of our paychecks they can solve all our problems.

Needless to say, I doubt it.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.