As a recent college graduate, I know a thing or 12 about doubt.
There are plenty of reasons for that. I spent the last four years working toward a degree in theological studies. I don’t know if I’m looking at the wrong numbers, but statistics seem to indicate that theologians are prone to reaping spiritual and intellectual rewards far more often than they are financial gains. Which is great, but still.
I’m also weeks away from embarking on a six-month trip to Vietnam, something that was inspired by a three-week trip I took there last summer with a group from school. On paper, it’s totally the kind of thing that makes me swoon — one of my friends and I will spend six months hopping around Southeast Asia, relying on the kindness and generosity of religious communities and working in exchange for room and board. In reality, it terrifies me because I don’t know the language and have never left Southern California for more than a month and I don’t like pho enough to eat it for half a year.
And then there was the standard reflection that’s common after hitting a milestone like graduating college: Could I have been a better friend, brother, boyfriend, son? What kind of person am I, anyway? Will I ever thrive anywhere as well as I did in college? Do I have what it takes to not only make it, but to be happy in the real world? And why is doubt choosing right now to hit me like a shovel to the face?
Sitting with doubt
I think that’s the key to making it through the rigorous process of sitting with all these questions — realizing that it’s doubt at work. But doubt gets a bad rap, because self-confidence and conviction and all those laudable things are also the things that get tested, dented, chipped, and sometimes completely broken in two by doubt. No one likes going through that, so doubt becomes a negative — I’m sure that’s what one of my grade school teachers was thinking when she told me that I should “never doubt myself.”
As much as I liked that teacher, I’d like to find her and congratulate her for giving me some of the worst advice ever.
I’ve found that at the root of everything I want for myself is the desire to be authentic. Unfortunately, shortly after finding that out, I also learned that authenticity needs doubt. And there’s a profound difficulty in that, that in order to be our truest selves, we have to brave the murky, rough, and — above all — uncomfortable waters of not being sure. On top of that, doubt demands something of us that’s much harder than simply overcoming or defeating it by sheer force of will: We’re invited to sit with it.
Sitting with doubt. It sounds a lot like sitting with that pudgy kid in the third grade who made everyone laugh by pointing out your physical and social inadequacies. And it can be like that — it certainly has been for me. But I’ve also learned a lot by sitting with doubt, and the only way I’ll ever reach my most authentic self is by confronting the questions that I’m most uncomfortable asking. So why did I study sexual ethics and moral theology instead of something more lucrative, like accounting or computer engineering? Because I feel most at home, most fulfilled, when I’m studying religion. (Also I’d collapse and/or cry despairing tears in a business or science class.) And why am I going to Vietnam? Because I liked it the first time, because I can, because I’ll go through some kind of growth. (Also, those pointed straw hats.)
Sometimes those answers won’t be enough. Doubt’s tricky that way, because no one would hate it if the questions it brought up could be immediately answered. But part of doubt’s dubious reputation is that it’s overwhelming — the recent, jobless college graduate with a liberal arts degree who’s about to go to a completely foreign country suddenly starts to wonder if he should have made a few decisions differently. And when I allow it to stop me there, I’ve allowed doubt to paralyze me.
So I have to trust — trust that my journey to becoming my most authentic self is going to be fraught with mistakes and sometimes tinged with success, and that even the briefest glimpses of who I actually am make all the grief that doubt gives me worth it. And trust invites me to take all my decisions — prudent and misguided — and gain something from each of them. Maybe most importantly, it invites me to accept that my process of doubt and trust and lack thereof is totally OK.
The Bible isn’t normally what I turn to for parables, but three of its stories work particularly well for this question. There’s the one about Jesus’ walking on water — he’s strolling atop the Sea of Galilee when his apostle Peter sees him and asks to join him. Jesus invites Peter to step on the water, which Peter does, but quickly starts to sink because he doubts. I’m not sure I would have even stepped on the water.
Then there’s the classic tale of Doubting Thomas who won’t believe Jesus is resurrected until he puts his hands inside Jesus’ crucifixion wounds, despite the fact that his fellow disciples are insisting he’s back. Thomas sees Jesus, puts his hands in those wounds and believes. The risk of giving the Messiah a serious infection aside, I think Thomas was wise to require more proof than his friends’ word.
I’ve come to view these not as examples of what not to do, but rather, what humans do. And for further reassurance, one needs to look no further than the account of Jesus’ death — even after the brutal agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus resolutely says to God, “Let not my will but yours be done,” we hear him cry out later, hanging from the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Doubt has put me through the wringer mentally, emotionally, and physically — and it’ll continue to do that — but it’s precisely because of doubt that I can say with any measure of confidence, “I know that this is who I need to be.”
For now, at least.