Wondering How to Transform Doubt

Katharine Hepburn and Barbara WaltersA wise man told me doubt kills. It’s a miracle, then, that some of us are still alive.

I thought about this last night during an unexpected visit with Katharine Hepburn being interviewed by Barbara Walters. They dropped by via the VCR out of an old stack of videocassettes I keep for emergency TV.

You see, I used to tape stuff and forget to identify it. Now, years later, it’s a little like having a pantry full of canned goods with the labels gone. Definitely potluck. But I like the mini-thrill of not knowing who’ll show up on my screen, yet sure it’ll be someone worthwhile. Last night’s can of soup served up an ancient 20/20 interview filmed shortly before Hepburn died.

A true eccentric, Kate revealed her distaste for closets, preferring to keep all her clothes visible and laid out on a bed. But the part of the interview that caught my attention came toward the end.

Barbara leaned toward her guest in that let’s-get-intimate way she’s known for and asked, “Are you ever in doubt?”

“Practically always,” Kate said.

“Yet you’re so definite.”

“Yes, I am. You might as well be,” Kate answered with a regal certitude that even the uncontrollable body tremors she inherited from her grandfather couldn’t shake.

“But inside you’re really not sure. It’s just outside?” Barbara asked, doubtfully. Then she leaned back, a startled expression on her face, and said, almost accusingly: “You have influenced my life. I have believed everything you ever said, and now you tell me you’re not really sure, at this late date?”

Like Barbara, I’d like to believe some people are totally clear about what they’re doing. That way, there’d be some hope for a doubtless me in the future.

At the same time, I used to think there was something good, something useful about doubt. I imagined a doubt-free world as chaos, full of people running roughshod over each other with their unalterable convictions. But I’ve changed my mind. Doubt, especially the kind turned inward, destroys.

Anyway, how can anything that feels so awful be healthy? My dictionary says doubt means “to hold questionable, hesitate to believe, to distrust.” But I look to the obsolete definition for the deep truth. Doubt used to mean “to fear or dread.”

Awhile back, another TV interviewer asked Steven Spielberg if, after producing so many successful movies, he ever worried about failing. “Always,” he said. “In fact, every morning when I go to work I doubt that I can pull it off.” I remember Johnny Carson, too, saying he’d never once walked out to do a monologue without stage fright. Just another name for doubt.

Doubt is the fear that we can’t pull it off, that nothing will show up for us, that we’ll fail this time for sure. It plagues me every time I sit down to write.

We learn to doubt ourselves as children through countless little incidents that erode confidence. I remember writing an essay in fifth grade about why I was glad to be an American. Proud that it was selected for submission to a local contest, I brought it home. My father read it aloud, laughing the whole time (maybe at how sure I was of my convictions). It probably was funny, as kid’s stuff often is, but I hadn’t intended it to be. Mortified, I wanted to crawl under the dining table and pull the chairs in after me.

Now I agree with the wise man who told me doubt is a lie. It’s false certainty, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Doubt pretends to question, but it’s already judged you. Coming from a place of fear, doubt stops everything cold, closes down the “third eye” (intuition, guidance, perception), and kills anything new.

“What’s needed,” he said, “is curiosity. If you let doubt signal a need to know what’s true, space opens for an inquiry to find out.”

I liked that, so I began to answer my doubt with “I wonder,” as in “if this isn’t right, I wonder what is?” I discovered that something new, often surprising, always shows up in the presence of wonder. Maybe a fresh direction or a hot idea or a creative solution.

Then I got curious about “wonder” itself, and my dictionary revealed three distinct meanings:

  1. To speculate about curiously
  2. To be filled with admiration, amazement, awe
  3. A miracle

So, to wonder is to question curiously, which opens the way for amazement at finding a miracle.

Beats doubt by a long shot.

Be Sociable, Share!

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!