Feeling rather happy with myself for solving this totally unimportant mystery, I got to thinking about the notion of doubt and wondering what others might have said about how to respond to it. Another trip out into the nether reaches of the internet produced a wide variety of responses, many of which I found interesting. So, I thought I’d do a post about dealing with doubt; whether or not it’s such a bad thing or whether one should worry about having doubts. Here’s some of what I found:
The Buddha suggests that one should “Doubt everything. Find your own light.” This doesn’t seem like a really bad idea to me, certainly some healthy skepticism of most things isn’t completely unwise. Of course, as one who was trained in scholarly technique, I do believe that the “light” might be found through a close look at the ideas expressed by others, and I think that the Buddha was more concerned with the value of questioning, rather than just relying on blind acceptance. Then, again, I could be wrong(?).
On the other hand, Isaac Bashevis Singeris quoted as having said, “Doubt is part of all religion. All the religious thinkers were doubters.” That means, I think, that he was suggesting that doubt is a good thing and that one can achieve a sense of the spiritual (whatever that means) only by seeking, questioning, doubting. As one who believes in the spiritual but has never been able to convince himself of the “absolute truth” of any particular belief system, this makes a good deal of sense to me.
I suspect that most theatre people, especially performers, would understand the wisdom of this quote by Julie Andrews: “When in doubt, stand still.” It seems, too, that Ms. Andrews’ quote has a corollary, perhaps best expressed by the author, Caroline B. Cooney: “When in doubt, shut up.” Of course, that might not work terribly well in the theatre, but it does seem to be a rather good idea, especially when in doubt. Of course, on the stage it’s also likely to make the awkwardness of the situation look like it’s the other actors’ fault, which has its own charm.
Short of that advice, which isn’t always really possible, perhaps the best idea comes from Garrison Keillor, the creator and star of The Prairie Home Companion: “When in doubt, look intelligent..” While that may not always be an available option (we’ve all looked foolish at least once or twice in our lives) that doesn’t seem like a bad plan almost anytime. It does, naturally, mean one has to know how “intelligence” looks, which could be a bit of a problem.
Some of the quotes about doubt which I find the most interesting may be the shortest ones, the ones like Ben Franklin’s: “When in doubt, don't.” I find them both the most puzzling and the clearest, both at the same time. To me, what Ben is saying here is that when one has doubts, he/she shouldn’t take any sort of action until the situation changes and the doubt is reduced. Which is probably not a bad idea. After all, perhaps the best answer is that which will be revealed when the time is right.
The all too common standard “good” advice about doubt is often expressed by sayings such as: James H. Boren’s “When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate; when in charge, ponder.”; or George S. Patton’s “When in doubt, observe and ask questions. When certain, observe at length and ask many more questions.” Those aren’t bad advice, but I’m not sure they really address the question of dealing with doubt.
There are attempts at truly practical advice relating to doubt, such as Mark Twain’s: “When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” Or, one might consider Cervantes statement: “When in doubt, lean to the side of mercy.” I also rather like Carolyn Hax’s: ”When in doubt, respond to what you witness, not what you hear secondhand.”, which seems like a reasonable approach for many occasions.
So, far, I’ve stuck exclusively to statements beginning with “When in doubt….” There are a good many doubt-related quotes which do NOT begin with this phase, however, and some of them also seem of interest.
I’ve become rather fond of this quote from Margaret Mead suggesting that not all things appear to be subject to doubt: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Perhaps it’s the fact that I tend to favor what are considered more “progressive” ideas, but I do think that Woodrow Wilson might have been on to something when he said that: "A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt.”
Doubt, of course, often has to do with serious questions of philosophy, religion, science, etc. To me, this quote from Benjamin Jowett summarizes the entirety of the idea of education in a single sentence. “Doubt comes in at the window when inquiry is denied at the door.”
I know that I’ve already quoted Mark Twain once regarding the phenomenal power of truth, but I just couldn’t NOT include this: “Truth is more of a stranger than fiction. When in doubt, tell the truth. If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are economical in its use.”
I have some reason to believe that I’ve enough of the Irish in me, to enjoy poking fun at the English, although I believe that I’ve got a fair amount of DNA from Great Britain in me, as well. Still, I like Craig Ferguson's comment that: "When in doubt about who's to blame. Blame the English.”
“When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” I ran across this in my casual research into quotes related to “doubt,” as being credited to the author, Herman Wouk. This statement sounded to me like something which might have been said by Lt. Tom Keefer in Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny as a comment about Captain Queeg, but I didn’t actually check that out and I couldn’t find a reference to a definitive source on the web in a quick check. So, I don’t know where it came from, but it still sounds like it might have been used in The Caine Mutiny to me. Of course, it IS an all too common response to trouble and/or doubt, so the saying could date way back, and Wouk still could have used it.
However, perhaps the best way to wrap this up is with this quote from Napoleon Hill: “Wise men, when in doubt whether to speak or to keep quiet, give themselves the benefit of the doubt, and remain silent.” Having enough ego to wish to be thought reasonably wise, I’ll be quiet now.